David Nelson’s first time in Haiti he met a four-year-old orphan boy who was sleeping on a bed of rocks. His mother and father had passed away from the earthquake that rocked the Caribbean island in 2010.
Nelson, currently in his fourth year with the NFL as the New York Jets wide receiver, thought he had all the answers when gazing upon the have-not Haitian child. He attempted to hand the boy a PowerBar and a bottle of bubbles to play with; although that’s not what he needed. He needed to know that, after losing everything, there was someone who cared.
The boy shook his head ‘no’ and, instead, reached his arms out towards Nelson and said, ‘just hug me’.
“That wrecked my heart,” Nelson, a panelist at the All Sports United philanthropy discussion at the Wells Fargo building over Super Bowl week, said. “I made it my mission when I came back to the States to manifest greatness in society; to give them every possible opportunity and platform to be a kid, to know that someone believes in you and supports you to become the person you were created to be.”
Nelson joined fellow panelists David Meltzer of Sports 1 Marketing, Lisa Delpy, of George Washington University, Tara Schwartz of the NBA and WNBA and moderator Melissa Mahler, founder of Pro Player Insiders, to speak on athletes taking advantage of their platform to provide a greater good for society.
When he returned back stateside, Nelson got with two of his brothers — Daniel and Patrick — and began forming the I’mME Organization with the goal of providing shelter, food, education and, most importantly, love to the children of Haiti.
“I believe in those kids. I believe in their future. I believe in the future of Haiti.”
The I’mMe Organization was birthed a year-and-a-half ago, but that was not when his passion for children or philanthropic service began. He, along with Daniel and Patrick, is the oldest of eight siblings. He has been around children his whole life. And since entering the league, Nelson made it a point to follow around the Buffalo Bills public relations staff and teammates with foundations to learn from them — something he urges other players to do, just to get to involved.
“I always encourage guys to go out and do. Just do. A lot of players don’t know what to do until they actually do it. I always encourage guys to go on the NFL’s Play 60 events. You never know, you may meet a child that comes from a situation that’s similar to you. It may spark a passion within that you never knew.”
Nelson met the child who sparked his passion on that first trip to Haiti. And that’s changed his life for the better. He admitted to the partying days that so many athletes involve themselves in, but it wasn’t until he found his passion did he feel fulfilled.
“Many get comfortable with the lifestyle — the fame, the attention, the money — that they’re afraid to step out of their comfort zone to truly find what they really care about the most.”
Driven by the quote of ‘live a life that outlives your own’, Nelson hopes to have impacted some people to where it’s addition by multiplication. That if he inspires five people, those five people can inspire another five people and so on — essentially the Pay It Forward theory.
It was with that theory in mind that he started his offshoot campaign, the Sudden Change Challenge. Throughout the 2013-14 season, the philanthropic fantasy football game allowed NFL fans to pledge money to their favorite NFL team capitalizing on big plays. After each week the totals were tallied, the donations go I’mME Organization, and names go up on the leaderboard to show which team and its fans are winning the battle. In its inaugural year, the Buffalo Bills fans won merchandise and memorabilia from their favorite team.
The difference between foundations that succeed and those that fail is the conviction to invoke change for the good. Most athletes are not actively involved with their foundations. They hand it off to a best friend who runs it to the ground, To Nelson the biggest problem athletes run into is the people who they associate with.
“Football is what I do, but it’s not who I am. I tell players all the time to have ownership in it. Believe in it. Attach your name to it. Don’t just do something good to do something good. It’s so much deeper than that. The people who you associate with will believe in it. They’ll believe in what you do. The kids who you deal with will believe in it.”
Nelson may be defined by his football label, but it’s shaped his no-quit mentality. Sports equipped him with resiliency. He’s had to work for everything he’s earned. He’s been told he couldn’t done things. And he’s done them; like when he went undrafted in 2010 and playing in 15 games for the Bills. He’s been kicked down; like when he was let go by the Bills and Cleveland Browns this off-season after the teams had faith he was fully recovered from a torn ligament in his right knee that kept him out in September 2012.
Resiliency is a virtue he hopes to instill to the ravaged island of Haiti.
“With these kids and what we do in Haiti, there’s so much of a fatalistic oppressed mentality that everything they get seems to be taken from them; from their government; from their neighbors; the Dominican Republic. They just continue to be kicked down. It’s about empowering those people. It’s not just something to talk about and get on my soapbox. It’s something I’ve lived and something I believe in and release on to them.”
Recently while in Haiti, he and his brothers bought a house for five orphaned children. Nelson and one of the children were laying on the bed of his truck looking up at the stars in their new driveway. With the boy’s head on Nelson’s chest, he was counting the stars in Creole when he stopped and looked to Nelson. ‘Do you love me?,’ the boy asked. Nelson told him he did. The boy rolled over, wrapped his arms around his shoulders and hugged him. ‘Somebody loves me’.
For Nelson, that’s his heart. That is his legacy.
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