To those who tell professional athletes to shut their mouths and play ball, Eagles defensive end Chris Long calmly, strongly, persistently — actively — disagrees. The two-time Super Bowl champion, No. 2 overall draft pick, star at the University of Virginia, brother of Bears tackle Kyle, and son of NFL Hall of Famer Howie understands how lucky his life has been. He also knows fame doesn't last forever: If he's going to make a change in the world, the best time to do it is now, while others are watching.
In August 2017, after the violent "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Va., his hometown, Long stood alongside safety Malcolm Jenkins before the preseason Birds-Bills game. As the national anthem played, Jenkins raised a fist, and Long put his arm around Jenkins, in a prearranged show of support.
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The next month, Long, who has a 2-year-old son with wife Megan O'Malley of Moorestown, N.J., announced plans to donate his first six game checks to pay for two fifth graders from the Boys & Girls Club of Central Virginia to attend his alma mater, St. Anne's Belfield School. In October, he decided to donate the rest of his base salary to support educational projects for kids in St. Louis, Boston, and Philly, the cities where he's played pro ball.
And that's just how he made headlines. Behind the scenes, Long's foundation supports people experiencing homelessness, underserved youth, and military veterans. It also funds access to clean water in Tanzania, a project called the Waterboys.
The Waterboys. How did it start?
I went to Kili [Mount Kilimanjaro] on a whim in 2012 in the off-season, to climb with a teammate. I was basically trying to get out of my comfort zone, after running on the treadmill of football and nothing else.
We'd just come down from the mountain and were in a bar in Arusha [Tanzania] when we ran into some great people from WorldServe International and got to talking. One thing led to another, and halfway around the world, I saw that clean water was a way to make a difference in a really impoverished, distressed area unlike any place in America.
Was clean water on your radar before your trip?
No. I didn't come to Africa for service, I came to have a good time and climb a mountain. But I kind of stumbled into something, saw poverty on a different level and people that are really resilient and vibrant and smart and beautiful. It was like: You get this life-changing experience. What are you going to give back?
The easiest and most efficient way to change the world was clean water. The WorldServe folks gave me a nudge in that direction.
Now you're a regular visitor to Tanzania.
I go back once a year, primarily to bring influencers over: NFL players, other athletes, anyone with a platform who's doing it to make a difference. We go up with wounded vets; they're the backbone of our trip. We also visit villages and schools.
Who's climbed Kilimanjaro with you?
One of our coolest stories is Kirstie Ennis. She was a helicopter gunner who got shot down and became the first female above-the-knee amputee to summit Kili. Ivan [Castro], a vet who is completely blind, summited the mountain, literally walking along ledges with 500-foot drops. The vets are leading the football players and showing us the way.
Also: Steven Jackson, [former] running back for the Rams, [former Eagle and current Giants linebacker] Connor Barwin, MMA fighter Justin Wren, who does great work in the Congo with clean water.
What kind of progress have you made?
We've funded more than 45 large, solar-powered, sustainable wells, serving over 100,000 people. We plan to continue to expand geographically, and to launch another educational initiative.
Here in Philly, we've been impacting individual kids through Summer Search, which offers mentoring, experiential opportunities, college advising, and resources for first-generation college students. It's hard enough to stay in college for a kid who has a lot of resources.
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Have you seen a change among pro athletes when it comes to service?
NFL players have always done a lot of good work. Now players have expanded their scope: It's not just turkey drives and toy drives.
There's also more of a spotlight on work. With the advent of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, players have more of a platform. But it's a slippery slope: One day, fans want to hear about hobbies and projects. Another day, they don't want to hear about it, because their politics don't align with your views.
Fan attention has an upside and a downside.
Fans can be the backbone of this kind of work. We started our Pledge 10 campaign for education [wherein fans joined Long in pledging funds for the last 10 games of the season] last season, knowing we'd get fan support. If not for fans, I would have done something privately, quietly. But fan support is a powerful tool.
Where do you get your drive to do service?
I've been very lucky: I have two really great parents. My dad didn't grow up with what I have. Football gave that to him. Football gave him the opportunity to raise his sons in comfort.
My mom is one of the smartest people I know and has the biggest heart. She's been the key figure in my life off the field. [My brothers and I] were given a lot, so we give back.
What about becoming a parent yourself?
Becoming a parent helps you empathize. When you have a child, all of a sudden, you love on a different level. Life is just different. Now everything you see is through the scope of: What if that were my kid?
What can Philly fans do to be a part of your philanthropy and service work?
Any plans to stick around?
I've really enjoyed Philly as a city. My wife's from Jersey, right across the bridge. As a first-year Eagle last year, I've loved how Philly fans pitch in. I appreciate that.
Football is one thing. It comes to an end for everybody. Even after I'm done playing, we'll continue to engage Philly.
Chris Long is the keynote speaker at the inaugural Corporate Philanthropy Conference and Awards on Monday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Crystal Tea Room. Click here to register.