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 Sunday. Matt Birk of the Baltimore Ravens, Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers and Charles Tillman of the Chicago Bears 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.
Recent winners of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award include Madieu Williams, then of the Minnesota Vikings (2010), Brian Waters, then of the Kansas City Chiefs (2009), and former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner (2008). (Complete lists of players nominated for this year's award and previous winners are below).
The three finalists were chosen from among the 32 team nominees for the award, all of whom receive a $1,000 donation from NFL Charities 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 Munoz, Giants great and Executive Director of the NFL Alumni Association George Martin, 2010 winner Madieu Williams, 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.
Matt Birk (Baltimore Ravens)
Birk, in his 14th NFL season, is the anchor of the Ravens offensive line and an undisputed leader on and off the field. The perennial Pro Bowl center has started 96 consecutive games, the NFL's second-longest active streak among centers. In 2011, Birk helped pave the way for Ravens running back Ray Rice to score a franchise-record 15 total touchdowns and rush for a career-high 1,364 yards, also leading the league with 2,068 yards from scrimmage. A family man and father of six with a passion for emphasizing the importance of education, Birk has focused a great deal of his energy on promoting literacy among the youth around him. The Harvard graduate's "Ready, Set, Read!" program, an initiative of his H.I.K.E. Foundation (hope, inspiration, knowledge and education), reaches close to 100,000 children in the Baltimore area and motivates students to read at home through an incentive-based system. Birk's work carries well past the many initiatives and successes of his own foundation. He is committed to bettering himself, his team, his community and the world. Birk has agreed to donate his brain and spinal cord tissue to the Center for Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University's School of Medicine to help assist in researching the effects of repeated head traumas. Birk is an eight-time Man of the Year (seven with the Vikings, one with the Ravens), and was a finalist for the national award in 2008.
Philip Rivers (San Diego Chargers)
One of the most accomplished players in the NFL, Philip Rivers' contributions on the field are equaled by his contributions to the San Diego community. Rivers and his wife Tiffany, parents of six children, launched The Rivers of Hope Foundation in 2010, with the focus of helping abandoned and orphaned children find loving homes and their own sense of self-worth. Their philosophy is "Adopt. Be The Hope." To raise awareness of the plight of foster children, Rivers has officially partnered with San Diego County Adoptions and the Heart Gallery, and has taped public service announcements that air on San Diego's CBS affiliate station. In less than two years, The Rivers of Hope Foundation has raised more than $650,000. Rivers contributes all of his off-the-field revenue to the Foundation, and raises additional funds through football camps and a 5K Fun Run. Last year, Rivers contributed to the creation of a football field for San Pasqual Academy, a first-in-the-nation residential education campus designed for foster teens. On the field, Rivers earned his fourth Pro Bowl honor following the 2011 season. He threw for more than 4,500 yards and became the fifth quarterback in NFL history to record back-to-back 4,500-yard seasons. He also threw 27 touchdown passes to become only the sixth quarterback in league history to log 25 or more scoring throws for at least four straight seasons. Rivers completed a team-record 366 passes in 2011 while helping the Chargers score 406 points to extend their NFL-record streak of 400-point seasons to eight.
Charles Tillman (Chicago Bears)
Since being drafted by the Bears in 2003, Charles Tillman has an NFL-high 28 forced fumbles among defensive backs, is among the NFL's top ten in interceptions and interception return yards, and was selected to his first Pro Bowl in 2011, a year in which he established a Bears franchise record for career interception return touchdowns. Since the inception of the Charles Tillman Cornerstone Foundation in 2005, his efforts have impacted more than 1 million Chicago area children and raised more than $1.2 million. In 2008, Tillman's 3-month old daughter was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy. She received a heart transplant and is now healthy and active. Consequently, the Cornerstone Foundation changed their mission to focus on improving the lives of critically and chronically ill children by providing support and life changing experiences. Tillman appeared before Congress to lobby for FDA approval of the Berlin Heart, a device which helped save his daughter's life, which has since been approved. In addition, Tillman and his wife, Jackie, contribute their time and resources organizations across the country that support the military, education, organ donation and underprivileged children. Tillman participated in a USO Tour in 2010 and hosts youth football camps and visits hospitals on military bases in Illinois, Texas and California. Illinois Governor Quinn declared June 19, 2010 and July 24, 2011 "Charles Tillman Family Organ and Tissue Donor Awareness Day." In 2011, Bleacher Report named him one of the Most Charitable Players in the NFL and selected him for their Top 5 Good Guys list.