THERE ARE three ways to look at NFL players these days:
1) They're thoughtless, thankless thugs;
2) They're selfish, self-obsessed celebrats;
3) They're overpaid, overstuffed and overdosed.
And then along come two NFL players with a story that makes you want to kiss somebody in the league right on the lips.
It started in March, after running back Ahman Green, who had spent the last seven of his nine NFL seasons with the Green Bay Packers, signed as a free agent with the Houston Texans. Green was hoping to wear his lucky number 30 with his new team, only to find that it belonged to nine-year veteran safety Jason Simmons.
We all know what happens next, right?
Green goes, "What do you want for it?" And Simmons says, "How about a Benzo?" Or, "How about a Movado?" Or, "How about a check with lots of zeroes?"
After all, when Clinton Portis became a Washington Redskin he paid $38,000 for his number 26 jersey. Roger Clemens once gave Carlos Delgado a new Rolex for his number 21. Eli Manning gave New York Giants punter Jeff Feagles a family vacation to switch from 10 to 17, then Feagles got a new kitchen from Plaxico Burress for giving up the 17, making Feagles a man who's made more money off of jerseys than Champion.
In each case, an ungodly rich person made a crazy-rich person even richer. Sort of like buying Pamela Anderson a Wonderbra.
But here's what happened in Houston: Green goes, "What do you want for it?" And Simmons says, "How about making a down payment on a house for a single-parent family?"
You could've knocked Green over with a piece of rigatoni. "I was like, 'Oh, man! That's awesome! Sign me up!'" says Green. He even offered to make the first year's mortgage payments.
Say what? An off-the-field NFL story without dogfighting? Nightclub shootings? Cincinnati Bengals? You half expected the players' association to investigate.
Like any ingenious idea, it's spreading like Parkay. Texans owner Robert McNair says he'll match whatever amount Green puts up. A developer said it would take 20% off one of its homes. A grocery store offered food for a year. A furniture company promised to contribute, then a mattress store, an electronics store, on and on. Hell, even the electric company said it'd pay for a year of heat! What's next? Casinos giving away chips?
In a world in which many NFL players can't see past their hood-ornament necklaces, what planet was Simmons from?
"Asking for a watch or a car, that was going to make me feel uncomfortable," says Simmons. "I'm not saying I wouldn't have enjoyed a car, but I want to be about more than money. Money can ruin you."
Simmons grew up in L.A., the only child of a schoolteacher mom and a dad who was on disability. "I can honestly say every family member I know lived with us [for a time] before they got on their feet," he says.
Green grew up in L.A., too, but it took a move to Omaha, when he was a teenager, before the family could buy its first house. "I remember finally having my own yard," he says, "and feeling some pride in that. Man, my own yard!" Now he owns three homes—in Green Bay, Nebraska and Houston—but the one he seems proudest of is the one he'll never sleep in.
But who will? Green and Simmons want a female head of household with at least three kids. Suggestions are pouring in to Regina Woolfolk, the Texans' community affairs director and wife of former NFL running back Butch Woolfolk. People are even secretly sending in the names of others who have too much pride to ask.
"We had one guy who called about a neighbor," says Woolfolk. "She has several children and was about to be evicted from her apartment. He'd paid her rent for a month, but that was all he had."
A decision is due in the next two weeks on who will get the house. Then a family will be able to say, "Man, our own yard!" And here's what I hope happens next: Every NFL number swap leads to a needy family getting a house. And NFL commissioner Roger Goodell stops fining players money and starts fining them houses. And every time some M.C. hollahs, "T.O. in the howwwwse!" it's because T.O. has bought one for somebody else. And all of it will be because of Jason Simmons's number.
See, life does too begin at 30.
If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
Usually, when one player buys a jersey number from another, an ungodly rich person makes a crazy-rich person even richer. Sort of like buying Pamela Anderson a Wonderbra.
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