By Jim Gehman, Player Engagement Insider
How dedicated is Tennessee’s Wesley Woodyard to helping at-risk youth? Consider this. For the fourth time in his career – three while with the Denver Broncos and for the first time as a Titan – the 10-year veteran linebacker is his team’s nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. It recognizes a player for the commitment he has demonstrated in helping others in the community.
“It’s a huge honor. This is my fourth time being nominated, so this is really near and dear to me,” Woodyard said. “It’s one of the most special, if not the most special award to be nominated for as a player. We all know the tremendous work that Walter Payton did on and off the football field. And anytime you can be compared to a man like that, it means a lot to me.
“I think this award really motivates guys to do more in the community. It’s a competition in a great way. (Titans teammates and past nominees) like (defensive tackle) Jurrell Casey and (tight end) Delanie Walker, we’re competing in the community to see who can do the most work. We’re actually having a lot of fun and whenever you get guys that buy into that, the sky’s the limit and the world’s going to be a better place.”
Woodyard, who is in his fourth season with the Titans after six years with the Broncos, began his quest while at the University of Kentucky by deciding to earn his degree in social work.
“I knew I wanted to have something to do with it in the future,” Woodyard said. “So, I’m like, man, I want to change the community somehow. I’ve got a degree, what can I do? I don’t want to be a normal social worker, but it’d be a great idea if we start a foundation and I can continue to do my work in the field. Working in the community is something I’ve been doing my whole life.”
As a rookie, Woodyard co-founded the 16Ways Foundation. A 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, its mission is to work with at-risk youth to build self-esteem and promote responsibility for one’s own actions.
“[The name 16Ways] came from my high school and college football number,” Woodyard said. “To me, it just represents a way out of the struggle. Everybody has life struggles and we use the cheesy, cliché, catchy little if you can’t get it done one way, you’ve got 15 other ways. So, we say you’ve got 16 ways to get it done. We just try to use that to show people, hey, I also had adversity in high school and in college and I was able to continue to dream big and reach my goals and accomplish my dream.
“Every time I speak to kids I try to make them understand that it’s not about sports. Yes, I’m a professional athlete, but this is what football has brought me to. It allows me to use my platform and speak to kids. I try to put the football title to the side and I just speak to them from my life experiences. What it takes to accomplish dreams. Who not to hang with, who to hang with, and who to encourage. So, it’s living out my life as an example for the kids.”
Woodyard’s work with the 16Ways Foundation has also led to building mini-libraries in Kentucky and Nashville, which are called 16Chapters.
“One of my board members came up with the idea of a spreading literacy programs and we thought it was amazing,” Woodyard said. “Whenever you see a kid get a book, their faces just automatically brighten up. When you get kids to understand that their mind and their brain is going to take them far in life, farther than any athletic ability, that’s what it’s about.
“I think the kids that come to our camps see that because we force that on them. We talk about bullying in our camps. We talk about police issues. Every issue that’s going on in the world, we try to talk about it and our kids are very receptive to it. Changing these kids’ mindset, and most importantly letting them know that they don’t need athletics to be successful in life, I think if you put a book in a child’s hand, that’s the best way to do it.”
Aside from the success he has accomplished on and off the field, what’s the best thing about being Wesley Woodyard today?
“That I’m a father of three kids: Greyson, Noah and Luca,” he said without hesitancy. “The thing is, through all the community service I’ve done and all the life lessons that I’ve learned, I actually have a chance now to instill those memories and those lessons into my children. I want to leave a great legacy for them to see how you should live life as a man.
“Of course, we all have challenges and we all deal with things, but I think I have one of the nicest hearts. I think I’m a very kind and thoughtful gentleman and I just want my kids to follow in the footsteps. And who else better to follow by example than your father. That’s something that I live by every day. Just try to make good decisions and good choices so my kids can see great things.”