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When people ask me why I love sports, and more importantly, why sports matter, I invariably tell them it's because some stars have the ability to transcend their on-field talent, leaving ripples of influence that stretch far enough to impact young lives. I was blessed as a young person to have many sports heroes. Among them were two individuals I've written about here, and many more that I have not. As it turns out, most of them wore small, white, angled Clemson Tiger paws on their uniforms.

In 2001, I was 15-years old, and I had almost grown out of that stage when one engages in a form of athlete hero-worship that's level of normality I'm not sure of. Clemson had a player at that time named Nick Eason. He played defensive end, and he was one of the better players in a program that was busy being rebuilt. Nick was somewhat unusual though, and he was precisely the type of player I was always drawn to as a kid.

Punctuating his bigger than life persona was a pearly white smile, and he used it liberally. Perhaps more importantly, he always had time for me. Before and after games, I'd approach Nick, often asking for his gloves or some other piece of equipment. As a kid, I lived for those high-fives - for those conversations - that made me feel like I was someone important, too. After all, Nick Eason was an All-ACC defensive lineman. If he was taking a few minutes out of his week to commiserate with me, then that had to mean something, right?

Nick Eason was eventually drafted into the NFL, taken in the 4th round by the Denver Broncos. He's had additional stints with the Browns and Steelers, and he even won a Superbowl ring as a part of the 2009 Pittsburgh team. His career in football, from his time at Clemson to his years in the pros, has been a success.

But I'm not writing today about Nick Eason the football player. I'm writing about the person I remember when I was a kid, and I'm writing about what he's now doing to leave his not-so-small mark on the lives of people in need, grieving families, and communities that need a hopeful figure more than anything else.

Last year, Nick Eason suffered a great loss. He lost his mother after a long bout with cancer, and during that time, he learned something about the difficulties of dealing with a terminal disease. He discovered that even for the strongest people, the challenge is too great to tackle and the burden too great to bear. He might have been able to bench press 400 pounds, but dealing with the illness of his mother proved to be both an immovable obstacle and a moving, transformational experience.

Out of this experience was born the Nick Eason Foundation, a charity designed to provide families with financial, emotional, and spiritual support during those times of greatest need. The foundation's mission is more specific and detailed, but its directive can be summed up in one sentence: Tackling challenges that families cannot. Nick recognized that there are times when community support can make all the difference for individuals in need.

The foundation does what foundations do, raising money directly and partnering with other groups. It provides financial grants to families as they deal with difficult situations, and it focuses on other kinds of outreach. Perhaps most impressive, though, is the way in which Nick has taken an active role in changing lives.

He spends time with children who have been diagnosed with incurable illnesses, reading to them and just being a big, jolly friend. What these children need most is a cure, but providing them with the experience of hanging out with a football star can certainly make those finals months a little bit better.

His goal is to make sure that those families have the resources that they need to get through the darkest days, and he has high hopes of reaching as many people as possible. He's also taken to shaping communities, organizing a football camp where he'll have the opportunity to mentor young people. I can attest that meeting and knowing people like Nick Eason made me want to be better as a child, and I can only guess that he will have the same impact on other kids, too. He gives talks and interacts with young men in his Georgia community. Not only do his words provide people with a message of hope, but his presence and his life serve as a walking example of what might be.

In many communities, this is just what's needed. Children are often trapped in cycles of poverty, and the dream of education seems so far away. Nick Eason graduated from Clemson, and his experiences have allowed him to pursue a graduate degree. In him, these kids can learn that there is a better way, even if they aren't built like an NFL defensive lineman.

In a sea of negative stories about athletes, Nick Eason's is one that deserves mention. He's a man whose talent has provided him with the resources and the platform to make a difference, and he does not intend to spoil that. I feel lucky to have known him, and I'm proud that he's continuing to have the sort of impact on others that he had on me.

Originally posted to Coby DuBose on Criminal Injustice, Race, and Poverty on Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 09:50 PM PDT.

Also republished by Barriers and Bridges, Black Kos community, and Community Spotlight.

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