Three community-minded NFL players will be recognized during Super Bowl week as finalists for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, it was announced today. Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals, Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns and Jason Witten of the Dallas Cowboys are the top candidates for this year's award, named for the legendary Bears running back who died in 1999.
The Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award is the only league award that recognizes a player's off-the-field community service as well as his playing excellence.
The winner of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award will be announced in New Orleans, the site of Super Bowl XLVII, during the second annual NFL Honors, a two-hour primetime awards special to air nationally on Saturday, Feb. 2, from 9-11 p.m. ET on CBS.
Recent winners of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award include Matt Birk of the Baltimore Ravens, Madieu Williams, then of the Minnesota Vikings (2010) and Brian Waters, then of the Kansas City Chiefs (2009).
The three finalists were chosen from among the 32 team nominees for the award, all of whom receive a $1,000 donation from the NFL Foundation to the charity of their choice. The three finalists will receive an additional $5,000 donation in their name. The selection panel is comprised of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Connie Payton, Pro Football Hall of Fame members Frank Gifford and Anthony Muñoz, 2011 winner Matt Birk, and Sports Illustrated football writer Peter King.
The winner of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award will receive the Gladiator statue, an original art creation by the noted sculptor, Daniel Schwartz. In addition, the player's favorite charity will receive an additional $20,000 donation in his name.
LARRY FITZGERALD (Arizona Cardinals)
The third overall selection in the 2004 NFL Draft, wide receiver Fitzgerald is a six-time Pro Bowl selection and holds virtually every receiving record in Cardinals franchise history. This past season, he became the youngest player in NFL history to reach 700 career receptions and joined Randy Moss as the only players in league history to reach 10,000 career receiving yards before the age of 30. The NFL's TD reception leader in both 2008 (12) and 2009 (13), Fitzgerald turned in one of the greatest postseason performances in NFL history during the Cardinals run to Super Bowl XLIII in 2008.
Fitzgerald has been just as prolific in terms of his philanthropic efforts and community work, both in the U.S. and throughout the world. In August of 2012, he was honored with Pro Football Weekly's Humanitarian of the Year Award for his outstanding community and charitable contributions. Through his two foundations-the Larry Fitzgerald First Down Fund and the Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund, he has helped thousands by providing funds for kids and families in crisis and to honor his late mother, Carol, has been heavily involved in furthering breast cancer awareness and research. He has served as a spokesman for the NFL's A Crucial Catch campaign each of the last three seasons, donating funds for each reception and TD reception during the month of October.
Globally, Fitzgerald has done extensive work with the Starkey Hearing Foundation, providing hearing aids for those in need throughout Africa. He has also traveled to Ethiopia with good friend and former teammate Anquan Boldin on behalf of Oxfam America, helping work on irrigation systems and digging wells in local communities. As part of his strong support of the military, Fitzgerald has helped raise money for the Semper Fi Fund, which benefits injured and critically ill members of the U.S. Armed Force; he also joined other NFL players on a USO Tour of Iraq and Afghanistan in 2009.
JOE THOMAS (Cleveland Browns)
Thomas has not missed an offensive snap since joining the Browns as the third overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft, starting the past 96 consecutive games at left tackle. He has been selected to the Pro Bowl in all six of his NFL seasons. Thomas joins Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown (1958-66) as the only Browns selected to the Pro Bowl in each of their first six seasons in the league. He is one of six Browns to earn Pro Bowl honors six or more times. In addition, Thomas has been selected to numerous All-Pro teams during his career.
The only two-time Man of the Year in Browns history (2010 and 2012), Thomas has a deep connection with those who serve our country. In 2010, he traveled more than 14,000 miles round trip to visit troops in Afghanistan through the NFL/USO Tour. To this day, he is still in contact with many of the service members he met during that trip. Upon his return, Thomas supported a national USO campaign to raise additional funds in support of our troops, lending his name to the nationwide effort as well as creating "Thomas' Troops," a gameday ticket program for the USO of Northern Ohio. Along with other former NFL players and coaches, Thomas visited the Pentagon this offseason to take part in the Military-NFL Culture Change Campaign focus group to help educate people about the dangers of traumatic brain injuries.
He and his wife, Annie, are also committed to other causes including the local Animal Protective League and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. In addition, Thomas has annually served as the Honorary Co-Chair of the "Taste of the Browns" to benefit the Cleveland Foodbank, and held a similar role this year with the Providence House and the Cleveland Browns Courage House. Thomas has also served as a spokesman for both United Way and Fuel Up to Play 60. In addition to "Adopt-A-Family" programs and "Shop With a Pro" events, he helped provide school supplies for local teachers by making the largest individual financial contribution that the local "Kids in Need Resource Center" has received. The center helps provide school supplies for more than 180 schools in impoverished areas.
JASON WITTEN (Dallas Cowboys)
One of the game's most prolific pass catching tight ends of all time, Witten's 110 receptions in 2012 established an NFL single season record for tight ends, and his 806 career catches are ranked No. 3 among all tight ends in the history of the NFL.
A seven-time Pro Bowl selection, Witten is just as passionate and successful off the field as he is on game day, and his career has been characterized by a sincere and genuine interest in giving back to the community where he resides and the community that raised him. Since becoming a Cowboy in 2003, Witten has been actively involved with many non-profit organizations helping a wide-range of people from all demographics and of all ages. He serves as the Dallas Cowboys spokesman for NFL PLAY 60 to bring awareness to youth health initiatives, and he supports youth football and hosts a free football camp for 1,200 kids in his hometown.
Through the Jason Witten SCORE Foundation (JWSF), he has funded several building projects in Texas and his native Tennessee. The SCOREkeepers program is a unique initiative placing full-time, trained male mentors in battered women's shelters throughout Texas. The mentors demonstrate positive male behavior to the children in these shelters in an effort to break the cycle of violence that plagues families affected by abuse. JWSF has placed SCOREkeepers in six shelters across Texas, and Witten hosts children from these shelters for special events throughout the year. The foundation's newest domestic violence prevention program, "Coaching Boys Into Men," trains high school coaches to educate their players on the dangers of dating violence.
The Wittens make giving back a family affair and involve their young children both in the team's early Thanksgiving Day meal at The Salvation Army and underwrite the Dallas Cowboys Women's Association's Christmas of Giving benefiting families from The Family Place.