EAST RUTHERFORD, N. J. –** Mark Herzlich is no urban cowboy, but he has jockeyed a few horses in his life. The Giants' third-year linebacker did some riding as a youth on an Indian reservation while visiting an aunt in New Mexico and on a family vacation in California.
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So it wasn't completely shocking that Herzlich spent a late-season Tuesday – the players' day off – at the New Jersey Equestrian Center in Pompton Plains. But Herzlich wasn't there to climb in the saddle and shed some of the stress from the long football season with a gallop on a horse. Herzlich was supporting a 12-year-old boy with cerebral palsy named Elijah as part of the third annual NFL Characters Unite Documentary, which the USA Network produces in partnership with the league.
The series profiles NFL stars as they share deeply personal stories of overcoming prejudice, bullying and discrimination, with the goal of helping young people who are currently facing similar challenges. Justin Tuck was one of four participants in last year's show. This year, Herzlich and Victor Cruz are among eight NFL players taking part in an expanded Characters Unite program. Presented by GMC, it will debut tonight at 7 p.m. eastern time on the USA Network during Super Bowl XLVIII weekend. Cruz will serve as the anchor to the program, re-capping all of the players' stories in a 60-second commercial that will air on USA Network and on charactersunite.com in mid-January.
"By sharing the profound stories of NFL players, we hope to inspire viewers to find the same strength and determination to combat hate and discrimination in their own lives and communities," said Toby Graff, USA's senior vice president, public affairs.
"I think it's great," Cruz said of the program. "I think it's something that needs to continue throughout our league to be able to build awareness and help kids in need that are facing these types of problems that may be hiding it or not telling anyone. They can watch things like that and be able to feel comfortable and be confident about what they want to do and be confident about, whether it is their sexuality, whether it is out bullying or things like that."
Last year, Tuck was joined by Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu and Baltimore linebacker Jameel McClain. Herzlich and Cruz are joined in the new documentary by Green Bay wide receiver Randall Cobb, Jets center Nick Mangold, Baltimore running back Ray Rice, Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman, Houston defensive end J.J. Watt and Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant.
Here are the inspiring stories of the three Giants players who have participated in Characters unite.
*Justin and Sebastieon *
Tuck grew up in rural Kellyton, Ala., where opportunities for advancement were scarce and finding inspiration to achieve greatness was difficult. But Tuck's mother always stressed the importance of reading and education to him, and his father embodied a tireless work ethic. That motivated Tuck to excel in school, which pleased his parents but prompted his peers to bully and torment him.
"I was a pretty good athlete, so you have a big game and everybody wants you to go to the party after the game," Tuck said. "I never went to the party, I always went home. Obviously it was to stay out of trouble, but also to make sure that I studied and did the right things. I had seen so many people in my town or in surrounding areas that were great at athletics, but never had the grades to back it up, so they didn't get the opportunities to go to major schools. I didn't want to be a kid like that."
Refusing to let the bullying deter him, Tuck left Alabama to attend Notre Dame, where he succeeded in both the classroom and on the football field. He joined the Giants as a third round draft choice in 2005. Tuck has won two Super Bowl rings, been selected to two Pro Bowls and has been elected a captain by his teammates in each of the last four seasons.
Off the field, Tuck is committed to encouraging youngsters to expand their horizons, just as he did. Six years ago Justin and his wife, Lauran, started the R.U.S.H. (short for Read, Understand, Succeed and Hope) for Literacy Foundation. The organization works with underprivileged kids to promote achievement through literacy and to point the way to success by following a path similar to Tuck's.
Sebastieon moved from South Carolina to New York, where he is a student at the Eagle School for Young Men in Brooklyn, where grades 5-8 are sponsored by R.U.S.H. for Literacy. He was one of 33 students who entered the organization's annual essay contest. Sebastieon's essay described how he had been bullied relentlessly for being a dedicated student. When Tuck read it, he was struck by how much they had in common. Having experienced very similar taunting for his academic passion as a youngster, Tuck wanted to help Sebastieon.
"I thought we could relate to each other being a little bit of outcasts," Tuck said. "I grew up in a small town, southern, and had dreams of doing something bigger than what people around me had ever done. He was the same. He had grown up in a small town and moved to New York and kind of was an outcast a little bit and really had aspirations of getting all A's, which was very different compared to most 11-year olds in his class."
Justin visited Sebastieon at the school and they developed an instant rapport, a bond that was evident to anyone who watched last year's Characters Unite documentary.
"A lot of times in situations like that you've got to spend the first hour getting the kids to open up," Tuck said. "But because of the similarities of our situations growing up I think he felt comfortable around me and really opened up early and it made for a good conversation with him. You could tell that he was a real bright kid and really had big dreams of doing something special with his life.
"The only think I told him was to continue to do what he was doing and don't let people that may not have the same aspirations as you be negative to you achieving yours. Regardless if you're doing something good or something bad - in his case I'm glad it's something good - there are always going to be people that don't believe in you. In his case when he would raise his hand every time a teacher would ask a question, they'd be like, 'Oh, he's a showoff' or 'Mr. Goody Two Shoes' or whatever it may be. There's always going to be somebody that tries to kill your dream, because they don't have one of their own. I just told him to be persistent in his pursuit of whatever he wants to do in life and don't let anybody stop his drive."
Tuck has kept in touch with Sebastieon since their show aired almost a year ago and plans to visit him again in the near future.
Victor and Joey
Victor Cruz is a Super Bowl champion and Pro Bowler, one of the metropolitan area's most popular athlete. He is famous for his making it big as an undrafted player, his end zone salsa dance and his commercials for Foot Locker, Chunky Soup, Gillette and Pepsi.
But Cruz also has the proverbial heart of gold. Days after the horrific shooting last year at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Cruz visited the family of one of the victims, 6-year-old Jack Pinto, who was buried wearing a No. 80 Giants jersey. Two days after the tragedy, Cruz dedicated the game to Jack in a tweet. On one of his shoes he wrote Jack's name and the words "My Hero," and the other with the message "R.I.P. Jack Pinto." Pinto's name and the words "This one is 4 u!" were written on Cruz's gloves. Cruz maintains contact with the family.
His participation in Characters Unite revealed another layer of Cruz's caring.
Growing up in Paterson, N.J., Cruz, who is part Hispanic, part African American, attended a school that was divided along racial, ethnic and cultural lines. He was often caught in the middle, which meant he was bullied, judged, and often left out just because of the way he looked and acted.
"Me being half Puerto Rican and half black growing up in a neighborhood that was predominantly those two things, they wanted me to make a choice," he said. "I was friends with both sides and it was difficult for me to do things because of my relationships with people in both cultures. I got belittled for it in some way, shape or form. But sports helped me with that. Sports helped me kind of erase that line and be friends with both and have it be okay."
Joey, now 19, came out as gay when he was 13. Because of that, he faced relentless harassment and bullying. Joey was physically abused – he was pushed and tripped in locker rooms - and verbally taunted every day. At one point, a classmate threatened to light Joey on fire. He reported the bullying, but was simply told by his teacher to "act less gay." Joey was so distraught and depressed, he even planned to take his own life at one point.
With the support from his mother, he ultimately found the strength and courage to use his experience to help others. He decided to follow the advice of his inspiration, Gandhi, and be the change he wished to see in the world. He began by circulating a petition to stop homophobia, but then noticed many other forms of discrimination present in his school. He broadened the group's spectrum by creating The Equality Project to address hate and discrimination in high schools and joined the national nonprofit organization GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network). Now a college student, Joey speaks regularly in high schools and colleges.
Cruz and Joey met, symbolically, the Giants' locker room in MetLife Stadium.
"It was the first time he was in a locker room since all those things happened to him," Cruz said. "You could see it in his eyes that he was kind of nervous to be in there, but he was excited at the same time. He was happy to be there, especially with myself and embracing him and being able to relate to the certain style of discrimination he had with myself and things that I had growing up. I talked to him about being confident and to understand that there are going to be people that are going to belittle you and say things to you that are negative. If you're gay or straight, black or white, whatever it is people are always going to find something to say to you to get you down. Just to be confident within yourself and focus on the things that make you happy and that should be good enough for you to get through.
"It was eye opening for me to meet a kid that's facing different circumstances and different types of belittling from others in a way that I had never been around. Growing up I had never been around anything like that. So to hear the things he was going through and the things that he was facing was definitely unique for me and opened my eyes to some of the areas of concern that are really going on in this world today."
Cruz helped Joey feel welcome and accepted in a locker room and gave him some much-needed closure to be able to continue to recover from his past and continue to serve as a strong advocate for safe schools and communities for all kids, no matter who they are, what they look like or where they're from.
How does that compare with acting in commercials?
"Oh, it's huge," Cruz said. "It's better, because you're actually affecting a life right there in front of you. You can see his life changing as you're talking to him and it's great. It's great to be able to touch kids. I think that's what athletes sometimes fail to remember. You're a role model at the end of the day and no matter what you do these kids are looking up to you. You have to be able to have the right role, have the right impression and create the right atmosphere for yourself in order to help these kids and I think that was the biggest thing that helped me. It was better than any commercial, any red carpet, anything that I've done."
Mark and Elijah
Elijah is 12 years old and has cerebral palsy. The kids at school pick on him, make fun of his legs, and embarrass him by asking him why he walks funny. His class had a trip to a zip line planned, and Elijah practiced for a few weeks with his physical therapist so he would be able to climb the ladder. A few days before the trip, administrators at the school were nervous he would hold up the other kids so they "suggested" he skip the trip. Elijah was heartbroken and spent many days crying in his room, feeling sad and angry because he had practiced and was prepared.
Herzlich knows what it feels like to work hard, only to be told you can't participate. In 2009, prior to this senior season at Boston College, Herzlich contracted Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. His doctor's though he might never walk again, much less return to the football field.
But after undergoing grueling treatment to become cancer-free, Herzlich had a stellar season in 2010. The following year, he signed with the Giants as a free agent. The linebacker and special teams standout is completing is third season with the team.
"Elijah and me both had an illness that left us disabled," Herzlich said. "One thing Elijah told me was, 'I wish there was a cure like you had.' For him it's tough, because there is no real cure and his cure has to be emotional. You do this and it doesn't feel like you're doing something out of the ordinary. This is a kid who is just like me, let's hang out, let's have fun, let's see what's wrong in his life and how we can make it better. We all have problems and it's great to be able to hang out with a kid."
On the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, Herzlich surprised Elijah at the YMCA in Montclair, N.J., where he and his physical therapist were in the midst of a session. Herzlich sat with Elijah and shared his story of when he was told he wouldn't ever walk again. He told him of the fear he had, as well as how others behavior toward him changed. Herzlich explained to Elijah that he knew how it felt to be the odd man out and be marginalized for not being as physically able as everyone else. Elijah told Herzlich how the kids in school make fun of him, and how he hates feeling different and left out.
"When I first saw him he was in shock a little bit," Herzlich said. "But then we sat down and I talked to him about what kids like to talk about - school and sports and friends and all that stuff. Once he felt comfortable he forgot the cameras were there, he forgot the whole big picture of the day and just had fun and opened up. I wasn't trying to be there as a celebrity to hang out with him. I was trying to be a friend. I think that he felt that and he understood that I was his friend and his buddy and I still am."
After they hung out at the Y – where they shot basketballs together - Herzlich told Elijah he had a surprise that would help him feel like everyone else. They made the 20-minute drive to the New Jersey Equestrian Center, a facility that uses riding as therapy for mentally and physically disabled youngsters.
Elijah was mounted on a horse appropriately called "Legs." After riding around the arena a few times, he was joined by two able bodied kids who rode alongside him, illustrating that he was able to do everything they could. Elijah was elated to be doing something he never thought he could. The Equestrian Center arranged for Elijah to return so he can continue to take riding lessons and spend time with other kids there. That will help Elijah strengthen both his body and his spirit. Elijah called the time he spent with Herzlich, "the best day ever."
"My son's self-esteem has gone incredibly high since he met with Mark and hung out with him for the day," said Sarah Williams, Elijah's mother. "He's going around bragging to everyone about his new friend."
Perhaps the only person more excited than Elijah was Mark.
"We had a great day," Herzlich said. "To see him excel at something physical - he excels mentally and he told me about him making the honor roll and he just glowed, he was proud of it. He didn't have something physical that he excelled at. We shot hoops in basketball and he was doing great, making shots. You would see him start to warm up and then when he got on the horse it was just like night and day."
Herzlich and his new friend also discussed some of the issues Elijah regularly confronts at school.
"He talked about how he gets bullied at school," Herzlich said. "I think you see it a lot at that age where kids are starting to get in little cliques and start to have little groups of friends and they're at the age where they notice when somebody's different than them, but don't understand fully what that difference means. The way they do it is they alienate the kids who are different rather than accepting them for their differences. That happens all across the world, I'm sure at all ages. But I think one of the things that Elijah sees now is there are some mean kids. One thing he said was, 'There is always going to be that mean kid.' I thought that was very mature of him to say, because really everywhere in life there always is that mean kid and you're like, 'Why did you say that to me, what did I do to you?' He's working on pushing past that, but I think to have him have something that he's confident in where he can fall back and say, 'Okay, this kid says I can't do this, but wait until I get back on that horse' is going to be important for him."
Mark and Elijah had lunch together and spent most of that day talking. When they part, Herzlich gave his phone number to Elijah, who called him the following next day."
"He thanked me for the day and I just talked to him about the car ride home and he said he couldn't stop talking he was so excited," Herzlich said. "He went into school and was telling everybody all the stuff he did. You could sense that excitement again in his voice. I said, 'Don't let your mom tell you that you can't call me. You can call me whenever you want, whatever you need.'
"I'm going to be watching Elijah grow for the next however many years and we'll stay in touch.
That's going to be neat.
Elijah and Mark. Two characters, united.