Every NFL team features many players who do great things in their communities. Over the next two weeks, NFL.com will feature one player from each team and highlight their efforts. In this installment: the AFC North.
Usama Young, Browns
Whether he's grabbing a shovel to build a new playground, molding Play-Doh with the kids at the children's hospital, or "getting my tail whipped" playing "Call of Duty" against servicemen in Iraq, Young has become the Browns' call of duty man in the community this year -- when they call, he shows up.
Players in the community
All 32 NFL team web sites do a good job detailing their players' great work in their communities. NFL.com is taking this time during the holiday season to spotlight one player from each team. In case you missed any, here are the features that have run so far:
Young learned early on the value of giving back while growing up in Maryland outside of the nation's capitol.
"If you've ever been to downtown D.C., you see scores of homeless people," said Young. "So my father and his friend used to make pots and pots of beef stew, set up shop at a shelter and the lines would go on for what seemed like forever, but it was always so worth it."
Young, who prefers to use the term "less fortunate" instead of "needy," has been providing for them since landing in the NFL with the Saints five years ago.
"This was 2007 so obviously they needed a ton of help down there building homes to restore communities which I did most weeks with Habitat for Humanity," said Young. "But when it comes to education, the struggles are the same in almost inner city with low graduation rates and drugs, so I focus on the same topics both in New Orleans and Cleveland."
Young set up his own youth foundation which provides for after school enrichment programs, college visits for the older students, and "Chalk Talks" where Young brings in guests for mentoring.
"I go into schools and tell them the incredibly low statistics about making it as a professional athlete and preach to them about the values of education," said Young. "It's just so far-fetched to make it as a pro, so you need to have a back-up plan and even if you do make-it, you need to have a back-up plan."
So what's Young's back-up plan?
As an education major at Kent State, he says would like to be a teacher and coach after the NFL.
"Although this is real easy to do one day a week," laughs Young. "We'll see how much I still love it when it's everyday."
Matt Birk, Ravens
When you get Matt Birk on the phone to talk about philanthropy, he has just left a mandatory county evaluation to ensure he's properly homeschooling his two eldest children.
"They just want to make sure you're not screwing your kid up or anything," said Birk, who has five children under the age of nine with his wife, Adrianna, and one more on the way.
Not that Birk would have much to sweat about in the educator department since he was named the sixth smartest professional athlete this year by The Sporting News and received an economics degree from Harvard.
"Once in awhile even Harvard makes a mistake and they let a guy like me sneak in," said Birk.
Getting a 34 out of a possible perfect 36 score on the ACTs might have had a little to do with it. While Birk spent 11 seasons with the Vikings and the past three with the Ravens in a league in which the average career is 3.3 years, he says getting a college degree was the hardest thing he's ever done and what he's most proud of.
Passionate about education, Birk started his HIKE Foundation (Hope, Inspiration, Knowledge, Education) a decade ago. It focuses on elementary school students and the importance of reading.
He has started two successful programs since arriving in Baltimore; one that focuses on after school reading where students collect points to be eligible for prizes including a behind the scenes trip to the Ravens facility, and a second program partnered with Scholastic for vouchers for kids to buy their own books.
"Kids think that football players are cool," said Birk. "Even if you play center they think it's cool, so it's just about going into these schools and giving them some attention and talking about the value of reading."
Speaking of reading, how did the home-school evaluation go?
"I don't think child services are coming," laughs Birk. "I'm pretty sure we passed."
Michael Johnson, Bengals
Turns out its origins are from the same era as an homage to the film "Weekend at Bernie's" based on, well, Bernie. Johnson, who said he was taught the dance from teammate Jermaine Gresham, had the students in hysterics after mandating that they run to a cone and do their best "Bernie" before backpedaling to the start.
Meanwhile, Johnson did his best leap frog (which was more of a step frog for the 6-7 defensive end) and hula-hooped his way through the day in an effort to send a message about childhood obesity.
And when it came to talking to the kids about nutrition, who better than his own mother, Thomasene, who flew in from his hometown of Selma, Ala., where she owns her own health food store and never let Johnson eat candy growing up (maybe there *is *something to the whole sugar will stunt your growth philosophy.)
It was Thomasene and his father, Samuel, a corporal in the Marines who fought in Vietnam, who convinced Johnson to start the MJ93 Foundation, with the mission to help children achieve their educational and athletic goals.
There's no better example of its mission than Johnson himself who was valedictorian of his high school class and went on to receive a business degree at Georgia Tech before joining the Bengals in 2009.
He has set up an annual football and cheer camp in Selma and visited the local Cincinnati V.A. hospital out of respect for his father, telling Bengals.com, "It just takes a few minutes and you can make someone's day just walking into a room," before offering a "Semper Fi" to the Marines. Albeit there was no dancing, having restricted his "Bernie" for the kid crowd only.
Brett Keisel, Steelers
The Steelers Brett "The Diesel" Keisel, with his "Fear da Beard" mantra, is actually a big softie when it comes to volunteering in the community.
The Pro Bowl defensive end has several of what he calls "Keisel Causes" that he continuously supports, including the Homeless Children's Education Fund, where this summer he read his favorite bedtime book, *Just Me and My Dad *to local youth, and raised another $2,600 for them be selling "Respect the Beard" t-shirts.
He also raised $40,000 for cancer research when he famously shaved off the aforementioned beard after Super Bowl XLV, but it's his work with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation for the past five years that has been a top priority.
Keisel, who has said that he has relatives battling the disease, is the honorary chairman of the annual cystic fibrosis event in Pittsburgh where he has coaxed teammates like James Farrior, Casey Hampton and Ben Roethlisberger to attend and sign autographs to raise money for the foundation.
"Knowing that what we are doing is working is the best," said Keisel after the event. "You can see it when you talk to kids or meet new people each year. They all talk about how thankful they are and there is hope for a cure."