Beth Veach, Wake Forest senior and girl-friend of Deacon fullback Chip Rives, was talking about him recently: "I'm a realist. I look at a Christmas tree and I think of all the work involved. Someone has to grow it. It has to be bought, gotten home, put in the stand. Then you have to get the lights to work and find the ornaments and hang all that stuff on it. Then take everything off and get rid of it. Chip looks at a Christmas tree and sees only the star at the top."
In fact, Rives (pronounced Reeves) is so caught up in the spirit of Christmas that last year—on his own—he started Santa's Helper, a program in Winston-Salem, N.C., that provides toys for needy children. He raised some $3,000 to buy new toys for kids—"Most of them have only had hand-me-downs," Rives says. "They don't need any more of those." With help from some assistant Santas, he wrapped the toys and labeled them for each child by name. Then he donned his Santa suit and delivered the gifts to 45 families.
This year all he did was raise $5,000 and deliver good cheer—and good gifts, generally worth around $20 per child—to 90 families whose names were furnished by a United Way organization called Christmas Clearing House. While shopping for the toys, Rives had groused as he passed a display of Wrestling Superstars, "You hate to expose these kids to so much stupidity at such an early age." He also nixes Rambo toys and nuclear-missile stuff.
Next year he hopes to reach 180 families. "Is that too much?" he asks. No, indeed. Rives is the kind of person Carl Sandburg must have had in mind when he wrote, "Nothing happens unless first a dream." Veach says, "Chip is a dreamer, a real victim of the Christmas spirit. And the joy he gets is in the looks on those kids" faces." Ah yes, he lights them up and they light him up.
Stafford Moser, a Deacon wingback who helped Rives as an assistant Santa last year, says, "I know Chip feels the sad thing is he can't help every needy kid in Winston, but the good thing is he'll find a way to help everyone that he can. If ambition is a crime, then Chip is guilty."
The proof is in the deed. Last week Rives donned a Santa suit and paid a visit to the Winston-Salem home of Alan Roberts and his three children. Roberts is an unemployed handyman who is getting $400 a month in public assistance. Rives ho-ho-hoed his way into the house and began dispensing packages that contained a toy bulldozer and dump truck for David, 5, a floating bath baby doll and Pound Puppy for Corina, 3, and Kermit the Frog and another stuffed toy animal for Rachel, 2. Rachel and Corina got into an argument over the Pound Puppy. Rachel coveted it. "Hmmm," said Rives, "Santa isn't sure what to do." The girls bawled. The floating bath baby became the subject of a dispute. Rachel glared at Santa who said, "Hmmm, Rachel has had about enough of Santa." But soon laughter returned. Santa ducked a football thrown by David. "Hmmm, Santa has to be alert," he said.
The visit was a huge success, one of the few lately at the Roberts home. Alan says his wife has left him, his 1969 pickup won't run, he knows his newspaper ad for work won't appear much longer because he's $300 behind in the payments for it, and the phone won't ring much longer because he's $280 in arrears. But, for the time being, Roberts was delighted. "Look, the kids are happy," he said. "And that was a pretty good haul."
The $67.20 spent on toys for the Roberts family had produced a lot of joy. Of course. When Rives does something, he does it right. After all, he carried the ball 247 times during his just-completed Wake Forest career and was never tackled for a loss while running for 1,080 yards. He had determination. Only twice did he fumble. Concentration. He caught 57 passes during his career, returned kickoffs and gave up his body blocking for the good of the team. Versatility. And after carrying 144 times in 1986 and rushing for nine touchdowns, he was called upon in 1987 (following a serious shoulder operation) to carry only 56 times, getting just 202 yards and no touchdowns. That prompted nary a discouraging word from his lips. Character.
The Santa idea came two years ago from an article that Chip's mother, Becky, showed him about a toys program in Texas. Chip thought it was nice. Nothing more. But he started rolling it around in his head, and by the following summer was pursuing it. "We're a family that cares for each other," says Becky Rives, "and then we reach out for others." Chip started by writing letters to friends and relatives to test the financial waters. When he wanted to open a savings account to hold the money, the bank wanted to know his employer identification number and his tax-exempt number, something he hadn't even known he needed. Reality intrudes on a dream. But Rives persevered, filing for and receiving tax-exempt status from the IRS. Several large toy stores snubbed him. But Tons O' Toys in Greensboro got the spirit: 10% off and the store would pay the sales tax.
People learned, mostly by word of mouth, about Rives's project, and money started coming in, $5 here, $10 there. And then Southwest Elementary School in nearby Clemmons called and said the students were collecting pennies and would like to present him with a check. "I thought maybe fifty dollars, tops," says Rives. He went to the school to pick it up: $600. And $600 again this year.
The Wake Forest campus is nearly deserted by mid-December. Rives stays, delivering gifts, clear up to Christmas Eve in the grimy slums of Winston. "In tough neighborhoods, Santa can go anywhere and not get mugged or have his gifts stolen," Rives says. "And I have to admit: I make a delivery and get back in my car and feel real good about myself. I want this to be a program that lasts forever."
No wonder his mom says, "Of course I love Chip, but more important, I like him." There's a lot to like. He's gregarious, perhaps as a result of having lived in 14 different locales while his dad, Bud, an Army lieutenant colonel, now retired, moved up the ladder. Chip is a child of the holidays—he was born Dec. 24, 1964. He's bright: The military academies wanted him, as did Brown and Cornell. And while he is a football player, he's far more. Says Becky, "He's a leader and he is strong—strong enough to say, I care about people.' He has this soft side." Rives hopes to be picked in the NFL draft but, regardless, will complete his work on an MBA at Wake Forest.
There's a sign in the Deacon football locker room that seems written especially for Rives: TO BE A CHAMPION, DO THE THINGS THE AVERAGE GUY WON'T DO, THE THINGS THE FAILURES GIVE IN TO OR WON'T EVEN ATTEMPT. The Other evening, a weary Rives returned to his apartment—this "victim" of the Christmas spirit has a fully decorated tree, star on top—and said: "You know these kids are out there and somebody needs to help them. I knew I could make it happen. I wasn't thinking, Peace on earth, good will to men. But once it started cranking, I got to thinking that way. And it's hard not to feel good about it."