By: Luke Shimer
The annual National Football League awards excites football fans with the hope of their favorite player winning MVP or rookie of the year, but the award that gets the least amount of attention might be the most important of them all.
The Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award is presented annually by the NFL, honoring a player’s volunteer and charity work, as well as his excellence on the field. Prior to 1999, it was simply called the NFL Man of the Year Award. Shortly after the death of Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton, it was changed. Each team nominates one player who has had a significant positive impact on his community. 2017 winner Larry Fitzgerald said “You don’t really wish to win an award, but to be able to win one this prestigious and to be on the same stage with some of the greatest humanitarians and athletes to ever play this game is such a great experience and something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. It’s really special.” The Man of the Year winner receives a $250,000 donation in his name to a charity of his choice. Also, every one of the other 31 finalists receives a $50,000 donation in his name to the charity of his choice.
The 2021 winner of the award is Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. This prestigious award means that Wilson will receive a $250,000 donation to his and his wife Ciara’s, Why Not You Foundation. Founded in 2014, the nonprofit is dedicated to fighting poverty through education, empowering youth to lead with a “why not you attitude.” Wilson said, “One, I want to start, I want to play, I want to have a long career and win multiple Super Bowls and hopefully go to the Hall of Fame, do all that stuff—that was my thought process my rookie year before I even hopped on the plane here. The other part was I really wanted to make an impact on the city, and I really wanted to be able to make a difference in the community.”
Giving back is nothing new for Wilson. He started visiting kids at Seattle Children’s Hospital prior to his rookie season and never stopped going back, making visits nearly every Tuesday throughout his career—this year those visits had to be virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Wilson and Ciara have also made a huge impact over the years with their Why Not You Foundation which strives to empower change in the world, one individual at a time. Since it launched in 2014, the Why Not You Foundation, in partnership with Safeway and Albertsons, has donated more than $9 million to Strong Against Cancer, money that funds life-saving immunotherapy treatment. Wilson and Ciara have also helped raise more than $1 million for Friends of the Children, a nationwide organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of generational poverty.
The Man of the Year trophy was created in 1969 by artist Daniel Bennett Schwartz, depicting a caped lineman modeled after offensive tackle Steve Wright, who had played for the Green Bay Packers during their Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II championships. Despite the renaming of the award in 1999, the trophy has never been modified to depict Payton instead of Wright. Each year, a winner is selected from 32 nominees from the 32 different teams. A panel of judges, including the Commissioner of the NFL, the previous year’s winner and a number of former players, select the winner of the award.
Even as maybe the least talked about award in the NFL, it is the most influential and helpful to communities and the league.