Football is one of the most transformative experiences for an athlete, but the sport's impact is even more monumental in the discussion of its off-the-field impact. Football challenges an athlete to develop disciplined characteristics that translate to enriched lived experiences.
The Walter Payton Man of the Year initiative enables each of the league's 32 clubs to recognize an athlete whose athletic excellence mirrors their contribution to a larger community and transcends the sports world.
This year's Giants nominee, running back Saquon Barkley, personifies those attributes through his work with organizations like Covenant House and Children of Promise. Barkley's commitment to making a difference is just the tip of the iceberg in his celebrated football career.
Likewise, football is a bedrock of maturation and leadership at the high school level, and the New York Giants strive to encourage that trajectory.
As such, USA Football's Heart of a Giant Award, presented by the New York Giants and Hospital for Special Surgery, recognizes 11 high school athletes in the Tri-State area who, together, embody team spirit through five qualities: commitment, character, teamwork, dedication and will.
This year's award winner is London Robinson – a team captain at St. Peter's Preparatory in Jersey City, N.J.
London's coach, Rich Hansen, describes the student-athlete as a "leader on and off the field," and admires his constant pursuit of excellence.
Robinson is a six-foot defensive lineman matriculating with a full-ride at Princeton University in the fall, but London is adamant that his success is in spite of the adversity he's faced. "I've faced multiple Goliaths in my life," a faith-driven Robinson remembered.
"I don't wear my background and have been able to pull myself up from the bootstraps, so much so that I've committed to play football and study at Princeton football."
At just 18-years-old, London has experienced more hardship than most of his peers. He grew up in North Philadelphia but moved to New Jersey with his mother, Joi, and two older siblings to escape an abusive relationship.
London and his family had to move unexpectedly after their apartment was damaged during a recent storm. His mother and sister both have to work overtime lately to make ends meet.
London Robinson made a promise to his family: He'll use his academic and athletic gifts to support them in even the toughest of times. Robinson's maturity ranks far beyond his years, and he credits it all to the sport that shaped him.
He described his introduction to football as a "fabled story;' a woman in Starbucks took note of Robinson's impressive size at just 11-years-old, and she invited London to join the youth football league she owned. Robinson instantly grew attached to the sport.
When he transitioned to prep school, earning a scholarship to attend a top-tier high school football program, London began to resonate with the cerebral aspect of the game. He equated it to an unlikely counterpart.
"Football is like a human chess match: If I could outthink the guy in front of me, I'll be able to get a checkmate," he said.
Those on-field contests have earned him numerous honors throughout his four seasons at St. Peter's Prep, including multiple NJ.com Player of the Week awards, an All-Conference linebacker designation, a freshman 'Defensive Player of the Year' title and most importantly, an Academic All-American accolade.
Robinson's 3.8 grade point average and 28 Division I football offers – including one at each of the eight Ivy League institutions – speak to a tenacious and introspective will.
At six-feet tall, Robinson is considered a smaller-than-average lineman, but academic success is something no recruiter, coach or opponent can refute. Robinson offered a glimpse into his mindset: "What drives me to perform so highly in the classroom is knowing education is going to carry me very far."
Robinson is an Ignatian scholar, spelling bee champion, two-time Word Masters champion, geography bee champion and runner-up in a state-wide poetry competition. He has earned high honors every marking period and was inducted into the National German Honor Society.
London's mother Joi, he recognized, is a crucial component to his success. "She taught me how to be a go-getter and never let anyone deny me," he gleamed.
At the end of the day, the team captain is selfless in every way despite the personal adversity he faces. As a teammate, he leads by example. As a human being, he aspires to "just make a difference" in whatever it is he does.
London Robinson is part of a larger network of high school students who exemplify what it means to be a leader among 11 athletes who work toward a common goal. USA Football recognizes a team of 11 finalists to honor the sport's collaborative nature. In addition to London Robinson, this year's finalists include:
Marcela Iversen, John P. Stevens High School – Marcela is a wide receiver and defensive back on her high school's varsity football team. She is her team's only female member, and she was voted a team captain by her peers after taking a leap of faith and pursuing a sport she loved. Despite facing adversity at home, she maintains a 3.9 grade point average.
Malachi Bethea, Eastside High School – Malachi is an offensive lineman and team captain. He is an ROTC member and mentor for the Girls and Boys Club of Paterson. Malachi lost his father and grandmother and holds a job to support his mother who recently suffered a heart attack and stroke.
Elijah Ignacio, Roselle Park High School – Elijah is a linebacker and running back who first joined football to combat childhood obesity. He hopes to represent the Asian-American community and dismantle race-related stereotypes.
Nate Garibaldi, John Jay High School – After coding four times in cardiac arrest, doctors delivered the unfortunate news that Nathaniel would be barred from contact sports. In making the best of his situation, Garibaldi chose to return to his team as a team manager, attending every practice, charting plays and sifting through film. "Nate could have easily stepped away from football, but he embodies everything we preach. He is a part of our family, and he helps us win games," head coach Jim Cancellari said in his nomination.
Steven McCaffery, Arthur L. Johnson High School – Stephen is a senior defensive lineman with a 3.8 grade point average. In addition to starting his own landscaping business, he is a member of student council and a peer leader at school.
Mikiko Coakley, Hopkins High School – Mikiko is a three-year varsity kicker and punter. She launched the Hopkins Body Positivity Alliance in alignment with her commitment to mental health. Coakley is an AP Scholar with honors and sits within the first quintile of her class with a 4.0 unweighted grade point average. "The Periwinkle Necklace" is her debut self-published children's book.
Pierce Olsen, Red Bank High School – Pierce is a high-level quarterback with a 4.4 grade point average and National Honor Society accolades. He dreams of becoming a doctor to help children like his brother, who battles cerebral palsy. Pierce's brother contributes to the team's success as a team manager.
Gerald Tobia, Watching Hills High School – Gerald is a defensive back and wide receiver who is actively undergoing chemotherapy treatment for leukemia. Though he is unable to play, he attends every practice and contributes as a team manager.
Aly Marzouk, Secaucus High School – Aly is a first-generation immigrant who plays running back and defensive back. He is a two-time team captain, high honor roll awardee and All-Division player. "Aly's humility has set the highest standard we have ever had in Secaucus," head coach Charlie Voorhees said in his nomination.
TJ Neeves, Rye High School – TJ was born with a severe intellectual disability, but his tenacity is unmatched. TJ's father became permanently paralyzed shortly before TJ was born, and he is confined to a wheelchair. Each halftime, TJ scores a "TJ Touchdown." Members of both teams huddle around TJ and cheer him on. "When TJ and his dad are on the sidelines of games waiting for TJ's 'touchdown' play, it literally 'levels the playing field.' All their disabilities disappear, and the only thing people see on the sidelines of that game is a father and son bonding over football," TJ's mother, Laura Labriola, said in TJ's nomination.