Denver Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard is known for making an impact on people’s lives…an impact to the tune of a team leading 100 tackles so far this season. Since being an undrafted free agent from the University of Kentucky in 2008, Woodyard’s play has reflected his leadership, his effort, and his heart. So much so, in fact, that his story has taken him from draft afterthought, to being named a team captain in each of his first five seasons, to leading the team in tackles in 2011 and thus far in 2012, and even to earning AFC Defensive Player of the week honors earlier this year. Interestingly enough, his story represents his other passion – his community.
“We’re a family-based foundation,” Woodyard said at the 16ways Foundation Toy Drive held Monday at the Denver Downtown Aquarium. ”We love to work in the community and build the community.”
What started two years ago with a small smattering of donated toys under a Christmas tree has ballooned to a full-scale community event that produced hundreds of gifts for children in Denver, many of whom might not otherwise receive anything during the holidays. This has made other Woodyard’s Broncos teammates take notice.
Rookie defensive tackle Derek Wolfe shared why it was important to support Woodyard’s foundation. “I came from kind of a rough childhood. I’ve woken up without any presents. Coming from a situation like that, I know what it’s like. You need somebody to believe in you and give that support. I want to get into the same things that he’s doing.”
As a two time recipient of the Walter Payton Man of the Year award for outstanding leadership on the field and within the community, Woodyard has taken on the role of mentor even when it comes to stoking other Broncos’ desire to be engaged with the work of giving back.
“The biggest thing is show those young guys the way to do it,” Woodyard said. “You’ve got to lead them into doing stuff, so eventually it will brighten up in their eyes and they’ll see how to do it. A couple of them have already expressed interest on how to get stuff started. It’s all about the community and they want to help out any way they can.”
One of those young guys taking a cue from his captain is cornerback Tony Carter. “It means a lot, just to make a difference in someone else’s life. Wesley does a great job of doing wonderful things in the community for people. I support him 100 percent. As soon as the idea and everything came about, I knew I was going to be here. It’s a blessing just to be here.”
It’s no surprise that Woodyard would take a mentoring approach to engaging his colleagues in charitable work. 16ways co-founder Derrick Kelly is not only Woodyard’s partner in the foundation, he is also his lifelong mentor. Both from LaGrange, Georgia, Kelly filled a void for Woodyard growing up through a one-to-one mentoring relationship.
“It’s not trying to be a hero or anything,” Kelly said about the value of mentoring, “It’s just lending an ear, lending some advice, and we just go from there.”
Kelly went on to explain that their mentoring relationship was a key component for Woodyard’s desire to use his on-field platform to give back through 16ways Foundation. ”He became a social worker. He started mentoring during his internship and he was like, ‘we’ve got to put something together.’ He got out here his rookie year and started doing his thing, and we put a name to what we do and took it nationwide.”
That story is at the heart of a team captain and community leader. Woodyard is impacting lives, yes. But perhaps just as critical, he is keeping that cycle going by inspiring those around him to follow his lead – and in a month that has been filled with terrible news around professional sports, that’s a good word to hear.
“He’s one of the high character guys not only on our team, but in the NFL,” Carter said of his fellow defender. ”It’s great to see someone like him doing great things on and off the field. I definitely look up to him personally.”