CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Greg Olsen, J.J. Watt and Benjamin Watson are finalists for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
The recipient of the award that recognizes a player's contribution in his community and to society in general will be revealed on Feb. 3 at NFL Honors, when The Associated Press announces its individual NFL awards.
Carolina tight end Olsen, who just finished his 11th pro season, has put together two initiatives, one to fight breast cancer, the other to help youngsters with a congenital heart defect.
Olsen's mother is a breast cancer survivor, and in 2009 he founded Receptions for Research: The Greg Olsen Foundation. The Foundation's "Receiving Hope" focuses on cancer research and education programming.
In early 2013, Greg and his wife Kara founded the HEARTest Yard Fund after a routine examination of their unborn son, T.J., revealed the infant had Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS). It's a family service program administered in conjunction with Levine Children's Hospital in Charlotte.
"We meet with the hospital staff and the nurses and doctors and go into these homes," Olsen explains. "Just to see and hear the families and have them relay the stories about this program and ... what the lives of these families would be like without our program. To hear how it is helping their family life and family dynamic is something far beyond what we imagined.
"It's been fun watching it grow and have such an impact."
Houston defensive end Watt, in his seventh NFL season and a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, had the goal of raising $200,000 for Hurricane Harvey relief in Houston.
His fundraising did a whole lot more, bringing in an incredible $37 million in 19 days. Watt has dedicated himself to finding organizations that will apply the funds in a way he has promised both donors and victims of the storm.
"For me, this nomination is about so much more than one man," Watt tells The Associated Press. "It's about the hundreds of thousands of people who helped donate to those who went through an extremely difficult time and rose above it all.
"I also know this is about honoring the city and its people."
Watt says he noticed something special evolving from his involvement in the fundraising efforts.
"I learned how much good there is in the world, how humanity steps up to the plate when they see fellow humans going through difficult times," he says. "From my high school and from kids with their lemonade stands ... to seeing people putting aside any differences and rivalries and helping out ... and how they wanted to donate to be good people and help their fellow humans. It shows how much good light there is in the world."
Baltimore tight end Watson, a 14-year pro, assists countless people through his charitable arm, the One More Foundation.
Most recently, One More partnered with the International Justice Mission (IJM), the world's largest international anti-slavery organization working to combat human trafficking, modern day slavery and other forms of violence against the poor. Benjamin and his wife, Kirsten, joined the global fight to end the scourge of sex trafficking.
"There are 2 million children worldwide involved in sex traffic and exploitation," he says. "This slavery issue is really a big deal that kind of goes on unnoticed and unheralded.
"People want to help, a lot of times people don't know how. The problems of the world seem so overwhelming that they do not know where to start. We provide people the opportunity to do something for someone.
"Whenever you help somebody, they end up helping you and you learn as much from them as they do from you."
Olsen broke into the NFL with the Bears. So the Payton legacy is more than a familiar one for him.
"Playing in Chicago for four years, I saw firsthand what the Payton family has meant to the city and the community," he says. "I was a teammate with Walter's son, Jarrett, at the University of Miami for a year, kept in contact with him. It's interesting how many parallels there are. They have a great foundation that does a lot of great work."
The three finalists emphasize that hundreds of their peers are doing similar work, selflessly and without fanfare.
"A lot of guys are doing those things, more than what people know," Watson notes. "One thing I always wanted to do is take advantage of the opportunities as long as I play and after I play.
"We obviously have some influence. Yes, as NFL players ... we have the ability to be more visible. Everybody has a sphere of influence they can affect positively, whether it is 10 people or 10,000 people. I want to use it to help people and advocate for people whenever I can, to be someone who stands for what is just and kind and right."
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