IN FEBRUARY Brandon McManus kicked three field goals to help the Denver Broncos win their first Super Bowl since general manager John Elway was their quarterback. He has a massive ring that he recently received to show for it, after making all 10 of his attempts during the playoff run, the first to ever do that.
Sunday, the former Temple Owl was back at his high school, North Penn in Lansdale, to conduct a football skills camp for kids both young and older at Crawford Stadium with an assist from some of his college teammates. They showed up to have fun, give back and impart some lessons. But the most important message had nothing to do with throwing a spiral. It had everything to do with simply trying to get along with each other in what's become this ever-more-challenging present-day existence of ours.
In November 2014, his first season in the NFL, he was asked to visit an 11-year-old boy who suffered from Down syndrome. His name was Ryder Braden, and he was being bullied by other children in his neighborhood because of his condition. So McManus spent an afternoon at Ryder's house, mostly having a catch in the front yard and talking. McManus wasn't trying to do anything special, just be there providing support. But . . .
"Seeing his emotions, the way he lit up, and the smiles on his parents faces," McManus recalled. "That instilled something in me. That meant way more than making any kick.
"I wanted to do something to make a difference."
And he has. With a friend he started the Anti Bully Squad, an organization that takes a stand against bullying. McManus isn't trying to change the world, merely hoping to make it a better place.
"I want them to know that they can step in and speak out, if they see something happening, even if it's not happening to them but they see it happening," he said. "We're coming up with an anonymous kind of tip line, where they can report something without being called a tattle tale. It's a platform for kids to be safe, and report things that they know might be wrong."
McManus says he was lucky. He was a bright student (who actually wanted to be a doctor), and an athlete. So he never felt the sting of being attacked either in person or via social media. At least not until his first season in Denver, when he became a cyber victim.
"I wasn't performing as well as I wanted to, and Twitter can be cruel," he recalled. "I laughed at it. But it's still out there. As long as I'm happy with myself, I know who I am. But there were death threats. People think Twitter gives them a voice where they can hide behind a profile picture. People read it, and now you're trying to battle back against it. And the biggest thing is, a lot of times these kids making posts don't tell their parents about it. The toughest thing is when you read about a 7-year-old committing suicide because he was being bullied like that.
"It only takes one experience to change a person's life. You should always be able to talk to somebody (about the problem). If you don't feel comfortable with maybe your parent, we're trying to provide them with somebody in that area. Anything to help. They shouldn't feel like there's nobody to turn to."
McManus was there with his parents, grandmother and wife of four months. There were a lot of people wearing T-shirts with his No. 8 on the back, and plenty of handshakes and hugs to go around. He's their native son, their hero. And he made sure he took the time to accommodate everyone, while spreading the word. What better forum? One youngster wore a shirt with "Future Legend" on the front. And maybe he will be. The best thing was, nobody seemed to be having a bad time. At certain points it was hard to gauge who was getting more out of it, the campers or the instructors in their Bronco orange T's.
At the end of the morning session for the youngest kids there was a field-goal kicking contest from about 30 yards out. Some of the efforts were, well, pretty feeble. But what do you expect from non-kickers? One did manage to hit the crossbar and bounce over. Another was barely long enough but just wide left. Finally Sean Boyle, a 6-5 offensive lineman who last played on North Broad in 2013, got one to go cleanly through. After everyone else had their shot, McManus boomed one that would have been good from midfield (it almost reached the scoreboard). So he went back to midfield and tried another. This one was just short.
"You know, tennis shoes and stuff," he later explained with a smile.
He hopes to return next summer to do it again. And he'd like to get an ABS chapter going in Colorado. Right now it's mostly a Philadelphia-South Jersey thing. But you have to start somewhere, right? The money they raised through this will help get them into more after-school programs. And you go from there.
"You have to create connections," McManus said. "I still communicate with Ryder and his family. We had them out to a game, their first ever. I think I was just asked at random, and it worked out. We're judged on whether we make a kick, but I'd rather be a hero for helping save someone's life. You're never going to eradicate (bullying), but as long as we're able to raise awareness and have an outlet . . .
"You saw it in the NFL with the Dolphins. Kids want to be so competitive. They name-call sometimes. A lot of that is nipped immediately here. We get a chance to talk to some of them. Nobody could ever tell me what I could or couldn't do. I just wanted to be the best I could be. Everyone should have that chance, without something (like that) getting in the way."
Sure sounds like a pretty super goal.