Welcome to Sports Illustrated's “Change Agents,” where the biggest names in sports have a chance to spotlight someone in their life who has been personally meaningful to them—someone who they believe is the best example of an individual fighting for change and one who has inspired the athlete to do better and be better.
The following is adapted from an interview and has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
When I was a child, our situation wasn’t the best at times. We had people that gave us a helping hand and lifted us over the hump. And so I understood at an early age that it takes a village to raise a child. I'm a product of that. I knew that people helped me get to where I was.
I tell people all the time: I'm a Virginia boy, a proud Virginia boy. But I became a man in Maryland, by attending the University of Maryland and then being drafted by the Baltimore Ravens. My first eight years of adulthood were spent here in Maryland, and it was a special time. And when you see the need in Baltimore, combined with the way they embraced me as their son, their brother, their cousin, it’s something that you can't just turn your back on.
So, my wife, Chanel, and I wanted to create that same thing in Baltimore and give back to the city. I've been fortunate to be around athletes who are some of the best at helping their communities: Anquan Boldin and Steve Smith. I was able to watch how they acted, but really, all they were doing was just being great men. Now, I want to continue my role in the community and hopefully inspire other men in their neighborhoods to do the same thing, because I feel the type of work isn't just an athlete thing. It's on all of us to do our part to help our neighbor.
Beyond the athletes I’ve met over the years, there is one other person who has inspired me tremendously: Congressman Elijah Cummings is one of the best men that I've ever had the opportunity to meet.
After I won the Super Bowl with the Ravens in 2013, I didn't know what to do with myself during the offseason. I was used to going from school to football and always having something to do. But at that point, it was like: What do I do with all of these months of nothing? I wanted to do something to be productive. So I decided to intern at Cummings’ congressional office.
In school, you’re taught to go vote. Your vote matters. Your voice matters. You have power. But I always wondered: What do these representatives really even do? I understood how they were picked in the election process, but what did their day-to-day look like? I learned so much about Congressman Cummings—particularly that he does things that a lot of other offices don't do. He really cared about the people, from the lowest level to the highest level. I also learned that the politician is the face, but you're only as good as your team. He treated them as if they were his family, and he also meant the world to them.
He taught me so much. How to lead. How to stand tall in your beliefs, how to stand firmly. He was known for being strong, for fighting for everyone, including the voiceless and those who are at the bottom. And that's something I take a lot of pride in as well. And I'm thankful that I had the opportunity to watch him in action.
Congressman Cummings also gave me an important reminder: Whatever you do in life, you can leave a lasting impact. The decisions you make now impact those in the future. And you have to make decisions now for them, even if it makes you or the people around you uncomfortable. And he always stood firm in that belief. We could all see it from the outside. You didn't have to be behind closed doors to see that. But I can tell you that he was that same way all the time. That’s one thing I know I will carry with me. I'll never shy away from speaking up, from doing the right thing and trying to do my part to make sure this future is better, not only for my children, but for our country.
These are all the reasons why the work we’re doing with the Level82 fund is so important. My wife and I have partnered with the Baltimore City Recreation and Parks to bring West Baltimore’s Hilton Recreation Center back to life. We’re going to offer after-school programs, such as tutoring with actual teachers. We want to give them enrichment activities as well, to teach them how to be stronger and better people. We want to expose them to technology. There's a huge digital divide in certain neighborhoods in this country and it's important for us to do our part to help to close that gap. So we want to expose them to 3-D printers, coding and more, because that's the future in technology. I'm also a huge advocate for mental health and teaching kids how to build their mental resilience, understand their feelings and be comfortable talking about things.
It's 100% our responsibility to leave this world better than we found it. That's something Congressman Cummings would constantly say. And I feel like through faith, what I believe is that it is my responsibility to take care of my neighbor, to take care of my brother and my sisters and to make sure that I'm doing my part to help create a better society. And I feel like if we all thought we had a moral responsibility to do that, we'd be in a better place.