During the recent controversy surrounding NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, there have been a number of opinions shared on both sides of the debate.
One of the prominent opinions from fans who disagree with the protests has been something along the lines of: "Instead of kneeling, players should be taking it upon themselves to go out in their communities and actually do something to help."
Of course, a significant number of players who have protested have also been doing just that. One of those players is Ravens eighth-year safety Anthony Levine, who has dug his heels into the community after signing a two-year deal to remain in Baltimore this offseason. As part of establishing the "4 Every 1 Foundation," Levine has developed a unique relationship with an area high school football team.
"I adopted Mervo High School," Levine told PressBox. "I'm doing things with the kids at Mervo High School. So I went and talked to them [earlier in the season], and I told them that I'd be adopting them, I'll be with them throughout the whole season, [and] just to send me some emails about some goals and things they'd like to accomplish and what's standing in their way."
Levine did indeed give the players at Mervo his personal email address and told them they could reach out to him directly.
"They email me, I print them out," Levine said. "Right now I'm currently going to respond to every single one of them personally. They'll tell me -- some of them said they want to be the first one to graduate from college. They've got brothers and sisters that are younger than them and they want to lead them the right way. They want to do better in school and get their GPA up. And they told me things that stand in their way. I'm going to respond to them and let them know, 'You got to do this,' or 'You got to do that.'"
If it seems like a two-time Super Bowl champion "adopting" a public city high school football team is uncommon, that's because it is.
"This is mind-blowing," Mervo head coach Patrick Nixon said. "He actually came the day we played Poly [Sept. 15]. The guys were so excited it was really a challenge for me to get them calm for the game because they were so excited and had so many questions for him. It was kind of hard for me to get them back on track to focus on our own football game. They're excited."
Nixon managed to get the Mustangs players to calm down in time for a 46-20 win against the Engineers that day. His next challenge will be to keep them focused on an Oct. 13 showdown with Patterson after Levine makes a second visit to the school. Distraction aside, Nixon sees just how valuable the arrangement with Levine has been for his players.
"They have so many questions," Nixon said. "He came and gave a mini-version of his life story. And so they have so many questions about how he got to where he's at and how he's stayed in the NFL as long as he has. His message has pretty much been: a lot of hard work, listening to and surrounding yourself with the right people, listening to the right people. I think they're just seeking validation really for them that you pretty much can make it if you work hard enough and listen to the right people, kind of follow his lead. It's the same message that many of us coaches are telling these kids; now they have someone who's in front of them that's actually done it."
Said Levine: "It's crazy because the things that the kids are telling me, I went through myself. So I'm like, 'Man, I understand what this kid's going through.' When he's emailing me I'm like, 'I understand that,' so I know how to respond to them."
After printing out the emails, Levine takes them with him to the team's Owings Mills. Md., facility in a book bag (he showed a stack to me during an Oct. 5 conversation) and reads them in the morning before the team gets into football activities for the day. After reading through the emails he then responds later in the day. The questions are typically about off-the-field issues. At times, the questions really hit home for the safety and special teams ace.
"There's one that really jumped out to me," Levine said. "It was real deep. I told my dad about it. It was deep and I was like, 'This is me right here.'"
For Nixon, Levine's commitment to the team speaks volumes.
"It means the world to me," Nixon said. "It's easy for another athlete -- one of the more known guys -- it's easy to throw money at a school. But for him, he's actually taking a lot of his personal time and just sitting down -- he sat down face to face and spent a good hour or two just talking to myself, talking to the principal, talking to the kids, just really giving of himself.
"The fact that he's emailing these kids and just reading all of these things that the kids are writing, it just speaks a lot about where his heart's at and how genuine he is. It means a lot."