For this former Patriot, charity has a (very) nice ring to it

Je'Rod Cherry sat through the slide show transfixed by the haunting images on the screen.

One by one, the eyes of so much pain and sorrow from a world away seemed to peer right into his very soul. Through photographs and narration, he took in horrifying stories of a little boy, on his deathbed, with a vulture literally circling in the background; of families trying to survive on two dollars per month; of children forced into sexual slavery.

He knew he had to do something. The problem was abject poverty in places like Africa, Cambodia, and Thailand. The obvious solution was money.

Cherry's first instinct: write a check.

Then another idea came along.

"So," a teenage girl said to Cherry as they walked out of the auditorium of last June's youth conference in Cedarville, Ohio, "are you going to donate one of your Super Bowl rings?"

The suggestion stopped Cherry, who was one of the youth leaders at the conference, in his tracks. The former defensive back had never considered parting with any of the three Super Bowl rings he won as a member of the New England Patriots under any circumstances. But the more he thought about it, the more sense it began to make. On face value, alone, any of the rings would generate more cash than he'd be able to comfortably contribute from his bank account.

Cherry, now a financial advisor for Merrill Lynch, also knew that giving up a Super Bowl ring would have a much deeper spiritual impact on him as he pondered the conference's central theme of doing one's part to help make the world a better place. He talked it over with his wife and with the leaders of the conference, sponsored by Grace Brethren Church, and the commitment was made to donate one of the diamond-studded baubles he received for being part of an NFL championship team.

Cherry's next decision was tougher: Which ring to give up?

He settled on the first, from the Patriots' victory over St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI, because that seemed like the greatest sacrifice for him -- well beyond its estimated value of $35,000. It represented the first championship he had ever won at any level of organized sports. His high school football team in Berkeley, Calif., won a single league game, and there were no titles for him at Cal.

"I'm privileged and honored to win three of them, but the first one, by far, means more," Cherry said. "When we won that Super Bowl, no one expected us to. The second and third one, it was almost expected we would win."

Now, anyone with $10 has a chance to own Cherry's first Super Bowl ring, made of 14-karat white gold and covered with 142 diamonds. That's the minimum cost to participate in an online raffle hosted by Cherry at www.netraffle.org. It will purchase five tickets that are entered in an automated drawing from which the winner will be randomly selected by computer at 9 a.m. ET on Nov. 27 … which, not coincidentally, is Thanksgiving Day.

Proceeds from the raffle will benefit Asia's Hope, Boston for Africa, Feed My Starving Children, The Italian Home for Children, and Celebrities for Charity Foundation.

Cherry preferred going with a raffle rather than an auction because it would be open to more than just the wealthiest of participants. He knows of other former NFL players trading Super Bowl rings for cash "for other reasons" pertaining to their own survival. He hasn't heard of anyone else doing so to help raise funds for charitable causes.

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Neither has Cleon Daskalakis, a former professional hockey goaltender who operates a sports marketing firm in Andover, Mass., overseeing Cherry's and several other sports-related online raffles.

"This, by far, is the most unique thing I've ever seen," Daskalakis said. "I mean, I was a pro athlete. I know how hard you work and you dream about winning a ring. I won a championship in the minors, in Hershey, and I still wear that ring. I'm so proud of that championship and I know the sacrifice that goes into it. To give up something like that is like giving up a piece of your life.

"And I want nothing more than it to be successful so that when he goes to bed at night he says, 'I probably have fed millions of children.' How much better can it get?"

So far, according to Daskalakis, the ring has produced about $100,000 in raffle entries.

Some of Cherry's former teammates have contacted him about his decision to raffle off his ring. Most have had the same response: "Are you crazy?"

Cherry admits that a year ago he probably would have had a similar reaction if he heard of someone else doing the same thing.

"To say that this was an overnight thing would be a misstatement," said Cherry, who lives in Macedonia, Ohio, and has four children ranging in age from eight months to 10 years old. "It's been a lifelong process of just realizing that life is not all about me. The funny thing about it is, playing on the Patriots (in 2001) when we won that first Super Bowl played a part in that in just seeing the power of working together with other people. One of Coach (Bill) Belichick's main messages was putting the team ahead of self and whenever you do that and you have everyone collectively do that, powerful things can happen."

Cherry, whose nine-year NFL career included stints with the Eagles and Saints, was the consummate team guy. He was a utility player whom the Patriots plugged in at various spots in the secondary and on special teams. He even moved to offense in practice when the scout team was short of bodies.

Cherry wasn't a star, but as a member of a team that won three Super Bowls in four seasons, he became quite familiar with star treatment. After an Achilles injury forced him to retire in 2005, he worked at finding a new identity -- one that didn't involve cheering crowds and so many other ego-boosting benefits that had become routine when he played.

"You get so many privileges from being a professional football player and that's how you identify yourself," Cherry said. "You see a lot of times when guys step away from the game that they have a hard time making that adjustment because that is their sole identity. They're wrapped up in that, and there are other things that you have to realize that are outside of the world of football.

"I was fortunate to realize there were other things I could do, there are other things I could participate in and just tie my whole identity to that through my faith. Most guys struggle through that. I struggled with it a little bit, but because I had another sense of identity beyond what I did on the football field, I was able to make that adjustment."

Making it easier to give up a Super Bowl ring is seeing the impact that the organizations benefitting from the raffle are having on so many people.

"You see kids on their deathbed and two months later you see a difference in their skin, their hair, their bellies, and everything else," Cherry said. "And a year later some of these kids who couldn't even walk are walking and smiling and have an opportunity in life. If that doesn't move you or put a smile on your face, I don't know what can.

"So much of our lives is built around consumption and a lot of that's about what type of car do I drive, what type of flashy watch or gold chain am I wearing, and things like that. It's okay to have nice things, but to make that what you're about is just a bad place to be in, because it can always be taken from you. If you've got a place where you can give it away and be happy about it, there is freedom in that."

Cherry wants his story to inspire other people to do whatever they can to help make the world a better place. And it doesn't necessarily mean giving up something as precious as a Super Bowl ring.

"It doesn't matter what it is, you can have a role and a part, and you can make a difference," he said. "I totally believe that. The Patriots of 2001 proved it."

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