The Walter Payton Man of the Year Award is the NFL’s annual prestigious prize for the best humanitarian in the league. At the end of every season, each NFL team nominates a player who has demonstrated excellence in football and community service. Then, a selection panel comprised of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and other past NFL players consider nominees’ on the field performance and off the field contributions.
Last night, the NFL announced that the field of 32 had been narrowed down to 3 finalists: Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Browns tackle Joe Thomas, and Cowboys tight end Jason Witten.
Since being drafted out of Pitt in 2004, Fitzgerald has been among the elite receivers in the NFL. He is the Cardinals all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, and recently became the youngest player in NFL history to reach 700 career catches. Fitzgerald has also been recognized for his excellence in community work. He created the Larry Fitzgerald First Down Fund to provide funding to at-risk kids in underprivileged areas. He also has made significant contributions to breast cancer charities and research, leading the Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund in honor of his late mother. Outside of the U.S, Fitzgerald and former teammate Anquan Boldin have both made a global impact in Africa, providing hearing aids creating irrigation systems for poor communities in Ethiopia.
Browns left-tackle Joe Thomas, widely considered among the best offensive linemen in football, also made it to the finalist round. Thomas is a 6-time Pro Bowler and has done great philanthropic work for our soldiers and veterans. From traveling to Afghanistan to personally meet soldiers to fundraising for veterans’ service foundations, Thomas has made it clear how appreciative he is for our defense forces. Locally, Joe founded “Thomas’s Troops” to give Browns gameday tickets to veterans in the Cleveland area. Thomas is also involved in numerous other community service efforts, such as hosting food drives for Cleveland soup kitchens to providing school supplies to underfunded Ohio public schools.
The third finalist is Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, a 7-time Pro Bowler and 2011 NFL record holder for the most catches in a single season with 110. A member of the Cowboys since 2003, Witten has gotten involved with many Dallas-area community service groups and has served as the Cowboys’ spokesperson for the NFL Play 60 campaign, which brings awareness to youth exercise campaigns. Witten is known all around Dallas for being a philanthropist, from tossing footballs with the Salvation Army on Thanksgiving to sponsoring building projects through his Jason Witten Score Foundation (JWSF). JWFS is a non-profit organization started by Witten to give back to Dallas and his hometown in Tennessee by helping families harmed by physical abuse. The foundation has well-trained male mentors help these damaged families and assists families in recovering from domestic violence.
The NFL will announce the winner of the Walter Payton award on Saturday, February 2nd at 9:00 in a televised ceremony live from the Super Bowl site in New Orleans. The winner will receive a large monetary donation to a charity of their choice, as well as the obvious recognition that comes with such a prominent award.
Past winners include Ravens center Matt Birk, former Cardinals QB Kurt Warner, legendary Dolphins DE Jason Taylor, and Broncos QB Peyton Manning.