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During an NFL season of protests and criticism, Chris Long asked, ‘Why not help?’

Chris Long pledged his entire 2017 salary to charity after the violence in his hometown of Charlottesville. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Early in 2017, after he had reached his professional peak, Chris Long weighed retirement. He had won the Super Bowl in early February as a defensive end for the New England Patriots. Growing up in Charlottesville and starring at the University of Virginia, he never envisioned an NFL career — let alone nine seasons, 58½ sacks and almost $40 million in salary. He wondered whether he wanted to put his body and mind through another year.

As Long considered his options, one thought surfaced above the rest. In 2015, he had started the Chris Long Foundation, from which he launched several initiatives, the biggest among them raising funds to build clean-water wells in Africa. He understood the platform that playing football provided. Wouldn’t it be cool, he thought, to do one last big philanthropic campaign? So, for at least 2017, Long would remain an NFL player.

He signed a one-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles for $1 million. As training camp approached and offseason practices and new playbooks piled up, his inclination to start another initiative had moved to the back of his mind.

“And then,” Long said, “Charlottesville happened.”

On Sunday, the regular season in an NFL year like no other will end. Long will give his 16th game check, like he gave the 15 before, to educational equality programs designed to help underserved children. In his words, Long wanted to aid “organizations supporting educational equity and opportunity.”

The violence in Charlottesville in August during rallies by white nationalists and supremacists sparked him. Long spread his entire 2017 salary to his chosen charities. He donated his first six game checks to educational programs in and around Charlottesville. He devoted his final 10 game checks to St. Louis, Boston and Philadelphia, the three cities in which he played professionally, and asked donors to match him, an effort he branded Pledge 10 .

The causes Long supports — clean water in a third-world country, the welfare of military veterans and enhanced educational opportunities in the United States — reflect his upbringing and outlook. Long grew up wanting for nothing as the son of Hall of Fame football player and Fox Sports broadcaster Howie Long. He attended private school and a prestigious university. He recognized his advantages, and he wanted to use them to lift others.

From October: Chris Long donates rest of his 2017 salary to educational charities

“I’ve always believed there are inequities in our country,” Long said in an interview while lounging on a couch in an Eagles executive office. “People’s apathy or resentment for that reality has been surfacing a lot lately. And so for me, it’s like, ‘I’m going to be a part of the solution.’ ”

What did it mean to be an NFL player in 2017? Like in no other year, politics ensnared players and philanthropy motivated them.

The Houston Texans’ J.J. Watt helped raise more than $37 million for relief in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Players across the league knelt during the national anthem in protest of racial inequality and police brutality, and President Trump referred to such a player as a “son of a bitch.” By late fall, politicians used player demonstrations in campaign ads as a culture-war signal. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick — who started the anthem protest movement in 2016 — donated $1 million to social causes while NFL owners chose not to employ him.

Long’s year reflected those themes. After the Super Bowl, he skipped the celebration at the White House. He put his arm around an Eagles teammate who protested during the anthem. He put his money behind his words. Earlier this month, he went on a self-described Twitter “thread rant” aligning himself with Kaepernick’s views, asserting he deserves an NFL roster spot and chastising those who would use his philanthropy to denigrate Kaepernick.

Long is nearing his goal of raising $1 million for educational organizations. It bothers him to be held up as a paragon, especially when so many other NFL players also give time and money, but he understands publicity helps. It may be impossible to separate Long’s philanthropy from his social awareness, and to separate Long’s social awareness from the moment.

“Whatever he believes in, he fights for,” Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said. “I can respect a guy that’s not afraid to step outside the box and fight for something. Chris is the man. He’s the man.”

Wading into the fray

On the night of Aug. 12, Long returned home from a training camp practice, sat in his car and reviewed, in shock, what had happened in his tranquil home town. A right-wing rally in Charlottesville had turned violent and deadly. Trump later assessed responsibility to bad actors "on both sides" of the conflict. Viewing images and news stories, Long felt violated.

“Being from Charlottesville, all eyes are on you,” Long said. “What are you going to do about this? It’s like: ‘Are you going to be a positive influence? Are you just going to sit and watch?’ It’s not going to change the world. It’s not going to solve the world’s problems. I have to do my little part.”

A timeline of the violence in Charlottesville

That night, he started planning to expand the support he had given to educational equality programs. Early in his NFL career, Long watched the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” which detailed the plight of lower-income children who get passed over for charter schools. Long knew then he wanted to champion educational opportunity.

“The biggest thing I took away from it was that kids know,” Long said. “I had everything you could ask for, and I was blowing off my tutors, [messing] around, all that stuff. There are kids in different neighborhoods that would have given anything to have that opportunity. You could see the disappointment on a kid’s face if he didn’t get into the right school.”

After the violence in Charlottesville, he planned to expand his scholarship program by donating his first six game checks, and later in the season he launched Pledge 10, donating the remaining 10 checks to similar organizations in the three cities where he played professionally. Long came to understand inherent societal disadvantages through not experience but an open mind.

“He’s a symbol of trying to learn more about different things, even if it doesn’t directly affect you,” Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith said.

“It’s complicated for me, because I do believe in white privilege,” Long said. “I believe in privilege. That’s a reality. You can’t argue with that. I also believe I’ve earned all my money, because I’ve earned it all through playing a sport. We’re supposedly all equal on the playing field. I have that unique perspective there. I also have the perspective of my dad grew up with not so much. I’m a generation off from that. My dad was able to give me everything through football. I just feel like it’s my responsibility to turn my platform and what I’ve been given into something good.”

Charlottesville stirred another part of Long’s social awareness. Long had been open with his criticisms of the Trump administration, including when he skipped the Patriots’ Rose Garden ceremony. Trump’s words and actions after Charlottesville struck a deeper chord.

“That day, I thought if there were ever an opportunity for somebody to redeem himself and step up, boy, he failed miserably,” Long said. “For me, I just sat in my car that night and watched his absolute swing and a miss, and it hurt for people in this country who feel that way on a regular basis. I was like: ‘You know what? I already know all this stuff exists. Why hasn’t it been enough for me to act more before Charlottesville?’ I always wanted to be supportive of my peers. I felt angry.”

From October: Long says forcing players to stand for anthem will create messier situation

On Aug. 17, the Eagles played the Buffalo Bills in a preseason game. During the anthem, Philadelphia defensive back Malcolm Jenkins raised his fist. Long draped his arm around Jenkins. “I think it’s a good time for people that look like me to be here for people that are fighting for equality,” Long told reporters.

The origins of action

Charitable causes had pulled at Long for years. During the 2013 season, Long started feeling like football was not enough. Stuck in the sport’s regimented routine, he had grown jealous of college friends who traveled the world, taking a month to explore Costa Rica or a week to build Habitat for Humanity homes.

“I went to London for a football game, but that’s it,” Long said, recalling his thinking. “I need to get my [butt] out in the world a little bit.”

Long called James Hall, a retired former Rams teammate. Years earlier, Hall had broached the idea of visiting Africa and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with Long. “I was hoping and praying he would forget about it,” Hall said, laughing. But Hall knew, deep down, Long would not.

His friends have long been astonished by Long’s capacity for action. He’s the one who organizes nights out when he’s back home or plans pilgrimages to see Willie Nelson or My Morning Jacket. In college, buddies joked with him about analysts praising his “high motor” so much that he got a tattoo on his arm with that phrase.

“Chris must get more hours in the day than the rest of us,” said Macon Gunter, Long’s close friend since childhood. “He has time for everyone, and he shows up to everything.”

So once Long started discussing Kilimanjaro, it would become reality. He summitted Kilimanjaro with Hall, relishing the challenge and being awed by the beauty. On their final night, Long was having drinks with Hall at the hotel bar, celebrating the conclusion of their trip, when he heard a voice yell, “Hey, Chris!”

He turned and saw broadcaster Joe Buck, whom he knew from St. Louis and because Buck worked at Fox with his dad. Buck had traveled to Tanzania with Brad Pitt’s brother, Doug, also a St. Louis native, to work on a clean-water project. They encouraged Long to join.

“We’re halfway around the world,” Long said. “I’m like, ‘Who is this guy who looks like Brad Pitt, and why is Joe Buck in the bar, and what the hell is going on?’ ”

The random encounter would shape part of Long’s life. As he felt a pull to see the world, Long had also started to contemplate the impact he could make. “I don’t think football is enough for me,” he said.

He had played six NFL seasons. Long had quietly established a scholarship fund in Charlottesville, working with the Boys & Girls Clubs to select students who would receive tuition at St. Anne’s-Belfield School, his alma mater.

From December: NFL and players’ group reach accord, but don’t expect anthem protests to stop

Long wanted to do more. He resented players who dabbled in charity for the glorification of their reputation. The idea of making himself the face of an initiative made his skin crawl, but he recognized the power of publicity. He thought he only had two or three more years left in the league, and he wanted to maximize the impact he could have while he still possessed the influence of an NFL player.

“He’s always just been hyper-aware there’s something greater than himself,” said his wife, Megan. “That he needs to do something with this platform he’s been given.”

As Buck’s invitation stayed with him, Long studied the impact clean water could have. He’d call his mother at 2 a.m. and share ideas. The more he studied, the more he realized what a catalyzing force clean water could be. Fewer hospital beds required to treat waterborne illness would mean better health care. If women and girls didn’t need to trek alone to reach potable water, they would face less risk of sexual assault.

Long started his foundation and launched an initiative called Waterboys. He would recruit one player from each NFL team, with the goal of raising enough money to build 32 wells in Tanzania. As of December, Waterboys has raised $1.7 million, served 100,000 people and seen to the building of 30 wells in Tanzania.

“It’s as simple as you’re saving kids’ lives, to you’re improving the efficiency of the world,” Long said. “It does everything. If you go to a village that has water and one that doesn’t in Tanzania, it’ll blow you away.”

After Long’s embrace of Jenkins, even his charitable efforts became the target of objection. The criticism dismayed Long. What could be the negative of helping kids get educated and providing clean water? Long learned even his best efforts to avoid politicization could be upended, particularly on social media. Even when he launched Waterboys, he heard criticism along the lines of, “What about America?”

Indiana legislator pushes bill seeking refunds for those offended by anthem protests

“I think if you want to be America first, we should lead from the front,” Long said. “As an American citizen, we’ve been given so much. We hit the birth lottery. Why not help?

“I’ve gotten it with Pledge 10: One, you’re just doing this for the publicity. Two, people want to get real political. They’re just missing the point. They’re like, ‘Why is it just poor kids that you’re helping?’ I’m like: ‘What? What are you talking about?’ It drives you nuts.

“People are like, ‘The government doesn’t need to help schools.’ I’m like: ‘I’m not the government. We’re literally helping after-school programs that supplement kids who are in situations where they don’t get the same schooling that your kids get. So, like, how is this unfair? We’re leveling the playing field.’ ”

Positive reinforcements

Long remains uncomfortable with attention and acclaim. In the Eagles executive office this month, Long was shooting the breeze before the predetermined interview subject arose. “I love charity,” Long said with a sheepish smile, glancing at an Eagles media relations rep. “Ask anyone.”

“If Chris had his druthers, he wouldn’t get credit for the good he is doing in the world,” Gunter said. “I think he learned that the scope of his work could be expanded and that the message could be more compelling if he attached his name.”

Long does more than lend his name; he’s both animated and obsessed by the work. He will call Megan after checking the Pledge 10 site and breathlessly ask, “Can you believe how much St. Louis is up?” He calls to thank donors. He recruits players to participate in Conquering Kili, a part of Waterboys that pairs wounded veterans and NFL players to climb Kilimanjaro to raise money for wells in East Africa.

When Long started his charitable efforts, his biggest fear was that people would not care. When Long pledged his first six 2017 game checks, he knew he would launch Pledge 10 and donate the rest of them, too. But he needed more time, and he believed attention from the first six would help gather promotional momentum for Pledge 10. In the interim, he frequently heard complaints that he wasn’t doing enough, that plenty of wealthy athletes could donate $100,000 or so.

“A lot of times, all the cynicism and negativity that exists, it can kind of consume you if you let it,” Long said.

During the Eagles’ bye week in November, Long returned to Charlottesville. One night, he was shooting pool with friends at a bar. A black woman Long had never met approached him with tears in her eyes and hugged him.

“I appreciate what you guys did,” she told him.

Long was confused. What, he asked, was she talking about? She explained how much Long wrapping his arm around Jenkins had meant to her. Long did not think the gesture deserved thanks, but he realized its importance. It made him feel better about the world.

Pledge 10 has raised more than $899,000. Long will donate another $50,000 to the city that raises the most money. After the announcement in October, Los Angeles Rams offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth pledged $10,000 per game the rest of the season. San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Arik Armstead started his own Pledge 10 campaign. It mattered.

What does it mean to be an NFL player in 2017? There are Twitter trolls and opportunistic politicians and a president who wants the public to boycott them. But there are also kids who want to learn and people who want to help and a woman who came up to Long at a bar, crying in gratitude.

“To see people care, kind of in my own little way, it reinforces that everything is going to be okay,” Long said. “We’re going to get this thing right. There’s enough good people.”

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