They would rather have spent Friday morning on Rice’s campus, going through their final practice before Super Bowl LI.
But if Carolina Panthers veterans Greg Olsen and Thomas Davis had to be in Houston this week for reasons other than facing the New England Patriots on Sunday, their responsibilities were worthy endeavors.
Some players on non-participating teams show up to the Super Bowl every year for an exercise in partying and self-promotion.
Not Olsen and Davis.
Yes, Olsen was dressed up Friday morning and headed to a Houston nightclub. But it should be noted his appearance with commissioner Roger Goodell at the House of Blues was for a fan forum with Giants quarterback Eli Manning and Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald, who, along with Olsen, are the finalists for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
Davis won the award, which recognized a player for “excellence on and off the field,” two years ago in Phoenix for his work with school-age children in Charlotte and his hometown in south Georgia.
If Olsen doesn’t win it this year (announced Saturday night during the NFL Honors program), he will soon.
Olsen’s HEARTest Fund has distributed $1.2 million to families of children with congenital heart defects. He and his wife, Kara, started the fund in 2013 after their son T.J. was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a rare defect that affects blood flow through the heart.
Part of the Panthers’ culture
Olsen suggested just getting through the preliminary round as the Panthers’ Walter Payton nominee was no small feat.
“I think as an organization, from the top down, we really pride ourselves on trying to have good guys. Not only just always the best players, but just good people, guys that do a lot,” Olsen said Friday at the Super Bowl media center.
“And not just Thomas. Not just myself. We have a lot of guys on that team that do incredible work in the community, both in their hometowns and the Charlotte and Carolina area.”
Like a lot of Charlotteans, Davis and Olsen are transplants.
Olsen’s a north Jersey guy, the son of a high school football coach who went to college at Miami and played his first four seasons in Chicago.
Davis grew up in Shellman, Ga., a speck of a town in an area covered with pine trees and peanut fields.
Both plan to stay in Charlotte after they retire. That’s a good thing for Charlotte, beyond what it means for the tax revenues.
Sense of community
Davis was in Houston in part for a press conference trumpeting an interactive game developed by the NFL and Visa that teaches students money management skills.
Davis, who will be 34 in March, said he and his wife, Kelly, plan to keep his Defending Dreams Foundation rolling after he’s done playing.
“With Charlotte being our home base, we felt like it was important for us to really establish ourselves and plant our roots right there in Charlotte and make sure we made an impact on the community,” Davis said. “One of the ways to do it was to start our foundation. We’ve been doing it for a while. That’s something that’s been good for the community. It’s been good for us as well.”
Olsen talked about the fateful way a trade brought him to Charlotte in 2011, a year before T.J. was born. The Olsen were impressed with the treatment and care their son received at Levine Children’s Hospital, through which his charitable program is coordinated.
“We just felt very connected to this community, very connected to this hospital and we have the opportunity to really improve the lives of the families they service,” Olsen said. “We take great pride in that.”
‘Let’s take charge’
The feel-good stories highlighting players’ charitable work often go untold, pushed aside by injury updates, contract negotiations, game analyses and hot takes.
Olsen credited Nationwide, the presenting sponsor, for bringing more visibility to the Walter Payton Award. Davis applauded the league for calling off its uniform police in Week 13 and allowing players to wear cleats that supported their charitable causes.
After being named Man of the Year two years ago, Davis gave an impassioned speech in which he issued a call for action.
“To the guys in this league, I just want to say to you, let’s take charge,” Davis said then. “We are a village. Let’s step up and be a village of guys that make a difference.”
Olsen and Davis have done that for Charlotte – and they aren’t done yet.