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NFL's most-needed honor: Why Man of Year Award is so crucial

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In 1988, Boomer Esiason led the league in quarterback rating, put the Cincinnati Bengals in just their second Super Bowl ever and was named the NFL's most valuable player.

The biggest honor of his playing career, though, came years later, when he started asking people for money.

"I won an MVP award and the Walter Payton award, and I would tell you the Walter Payton award means more to me because of the significance that it's wrapped up in," Esiason said in a recent interview. "And that you're trying to do good not just for a football team but, in my case, a population of cystic fibrosis patients."

Esiason won the Man of the Year Award in 1995 -- four years before it was renamed for the late Hall of Fame Chicago Bears running back -- for his excellence on the field and for starting the Boomer Esiason Foundation two years earlier. Esiason began the foundation shortly after he learned that his young son, Gunnar, had cystic fibrosis. His most famous moment did not come on a field, but at a newsstand -- the Oct. 4, 1993 Sports Illustrated issue that featured Esiason, with Gunnar on his shoulders. Since then, according to the foundation's website, it has raised $115 million for medical research and other programs for cystic fibrosis patients.

The 32 nominees -- one from each team -- for the 2018 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award presented by Nationwide were announced Thursday. And coming just about a week after two players were released by their teams for domestic violence- and assault-related incidents -- and one of them picked up immediately by another team -- it is a relief. The Walter Payton award is arguably the NFL's greatest honor and indisputably its most-needed. When the news is bad like it was last week, the award is a reminder that there are many more players who use their considerable fame to help people outside the game.

Like Jason Witten when he was a finalist for the honor in 2007 before winning in 2012, this year's nominees might be struck by the stature of the players who were previous winners: Johnny Unitas, the first winner in 1970, Franco Harris, Joe Greene, Dan Marino, Peyton Manning and Walter Payton himself.

"Those names, not only as players -- that's who you wanted to be as a kid," Witten said. "That's who you were in the backyard. I remember going through that weekend being around Walter's family, thinking about their foundation, that platform, that stage. That weekend was the first time I saw it. I saw a veteran in Jason Taylor, how excited he was for that moment (when he won the award in 2007)."

When Witten did win, LaDainian Tomlinson -- another former winner -- told him that, of all the things Witten would accomplish, the Walter Payton award would ultimately mean the most to him. Witten says he now knows that Tomlinson was correct. Winning the award -- for his work with multiple non-profit efforts, including his foundation that addresses issues related to domestic violence -- continues to motivate his philanthropic work.

The Man of the Year Award replaced the Gladiator Award, which judged candidates on the basis of "football ability, citizenship, youth leadership, educational aims and family interests." Including the Gladiator Award, 28 winners of the Man of the Year Award are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Nearly 50 years after its creation, the award has taken on greater meaning to players because, in an era of saturation coverage of the NFL, it is the rare honor that recognizes they are multi-dimensional, and are capable of excelling on the field while also making contributions off it. Witten remembers that he did not have a team of people pushing his nomination for this award, as typically happens with more playing-performance-based postseason honors.

"There's a pureness that comes with this award," Witten said.

This year, the nominees include longtime veterans and relative newcomers to the NFL. Julius Peppers, in his 17th season, became the Carolina Panthers' nominee after he established the Julius Peppers Hurricane Relief Fund with a donation of $100,000 to help with Hurricane Florence recovery efforts. The Denver Broncos' nominee is Von Miller, whose Von's Vision Foundation has provided free eye screenings to students at 25 schools and organizations, while $500,000 of frames and lenses have been donated to program participants. The Miami Dolphins' Kenny Stills was nominated for his extensive work on social justice initiatives, including traveling throughout the country on a tour he organized himself to explore and participate in equality efforts.

All the nominees will be invited to participate in and be recognized at a number of appearances and activities in the week leading up to the Super Bowl, culminating with the announcement of a winner during NFL Honors, the league's annual awards show, on Feb. 2. For the winner, $500,000 will be donated in his name -- $250,000 to the charity of his choice and $250,000 will be donated to expand Character Playbook, the NFL and United Way's digital character education program. All other nominees will receive a $50,000 donation in their name to expand Character Playbook and another $50,000 to the charity of their choice.

When it was renamed in 1999 after Payton's death (the model for the statue given to winners is not Payton, but journeyman offensive lineman Steve Wright, who played for five teams between 1964 and 1972), the award became more resonant for fans. Payton's widow, Connie, is part of the panel that selects the winner, and she and the Payton children participate in the Super Bowl week festivities surrounding the award.

What it may do most effectively is undermine the argument that professional athletes should stick to sports and not engage in the issues of the day.

Esiason points to Malcolm Jenkins' social justice efforts -- which initially sprang from Colin Kaepernick's controversial on-field protest -- as an example of how players can transfer the stature their play earns them to gain traction for their work off the field. Esiason acknowledges he would not have been able to harness as much public attention for his foundation if he were not the quarterback for the New York Jets. J.J. Watt, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, was the 2017 recipient of the Payton award for his extraordinary social-media-driven fundraising effort after Houston was battered by Hurricane Harvey. He set an initial goal of $200,000, but a video he posted went viral, and Watt ended up raising $37 million in 19 days.

"This award is about the inherent good that lies within humanity," Watt said when he received the award.

Which is a good thing of which to be reminded.

On a more prosaic level, it has become a useful and powerful tool for its winners. Witten said that the year after he won, he was shocked by the number of sponsors who wanted to be a part of his foundation's fundraising events. They had heard about it when he won the award.

"It gives you an enormous amount of credibility," Esiason said. "Everybody figures if you're the man of the year at the NFL, the NFL has done its due diligence. They knew who you are. They're not just picking anybody. I owe a debt of gratitude to the NFL for their platform. There is nothing like it. I can get into any boardroom and get any meeting I'd like."

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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