When I was 16 years old, my momma took my little sister and left me.
But she didn’t leave outta anger. She didn’t leave because she was overwhelmed. She left me ’cause she loved me.
Allow me to explain.
I grew up in Shellman, Ga. You ever heard of it? Probably not. Shellman’s got a population of just around 1,000 people. It’s a pretty poor community, and there’s not much opportunity there. For as long as I can remember, things haven’t changed. People simply don’t make it outta there.
Some of my friends growing up had a ton of talent on the football field — probably more talent than me. But they either didn’t get noticed by recruiters or they went down the wrong road. In fact, a lot of them are still living in Shellman. I often say the fact that I made it out of Shellman at all is a miracle. It simply just doesn’t happen.
Ultimately, the biggest motivation for me was learning from some of the mistakes my friends made — whether they were doing drugs or something illegal — and seeing how much my momma struggled. It was tough.
See, my mother and father separated when I was very young, and my sister and I lived with my momma. We lived in an enormous amount of poverty. I’m talkin’ downright hardship. No matter how hard my mom tried — taking a job here or working the night shift there — we just never had much. But it wasn’t her fault — it was just a fact of life.
Sports were free, which meant I could play them all I wanted. And man, that was perfect for my momma and me.
And our situation affected my sister and me in almost every way.
You know how excited kids get for the first day of school? That was me, man. I loved going to school. I never wanted to miss a day. I mean, I can remember waking up late some days, missing the bus, quickly throwing on whatever clothes I could find and running to catch the same bus down on another block. I could’ve easily skipped out, but, nah, that wasn’t for me.
I’ll never forget the first day of third grade. My mom had been working all summer long, but she still didn’t have enough money to buy me a new pair of shoes. I had grown out of my sneakers over the summer.
So I went to school in cleats from a local Family Dollar store, because normal shoes were too expensive.
When I climbed on the bus, I kept my head down so I didn’t catch anyone’s eye. It was embarrassing, but that was my reality. There were some years when I started school without a backpack, or without pens or binders. It’s not like I was the only one who had to do without them. A bunch of Shellman kids were dealing with the same problems.
There were a lot of things I couldn’t do because my momma didn’t have the financial resources. I’m talking simple things, like going on school field trips to the zoo or wherever. You needed to have money to go on these field trips, but we didn’t have the extra cash. Living from paycheck to paycheck was a very real thing for us. All our money went to two things: food and bills. That was it.
While everything seemed to be out of my reach — from normal shoes to school supplies to field trips — I did try to take advantage of every opportunity I could. So growing up, I played sports. I feel like I never went home after school because all I wanted to do was stay on the court or on the field. Sports were free, which meant I could play them all I wanted. And man, that was perfect for my momma and me.
The older I got, the more people started to notice my athleticism. At Randolph-Clay High, I played football, basketball, baseball and track. Early on, I established myself as one of the best athletes to ever go to Randolph-Clay. It was clear that if I continued on the right path, I was going to have a chance to earn a scholarship to college — a rare ticket out of Shellman.
But for as well as things were going on the football field, things were going badly for my family financially. Even as my sister and I tried to help out by taking on odd jobs, my mom just couldn’t earn enough to support the family. And it all came to a head when I was in 11th grade.
One night after football practice my momma — with pain in her voice and tears on her cheeks — sat me down at the kitchen table and told me that she and my little sister were moving to Alabama. The only way she could continue to provide for us, she said, was by taking a job in Eufaula, which offered better pay and benefits than her current one. If she was ever going to make our lives better, she had to take this job. And I understood that.
I remember taking a few deep breaths — of course, I didn’t want to see my momma go — and trying to figure out what to say. My first instinct was to go with her. But I was really starting to make a name for myself on the football field. For as much as I wanted to escape Shellman, I knew that to give myself the best chance of making it out I had to … stay put.
So I asked her.
“Well, Momma … can I stay here?”
We talked it through. She and I knew that I was one of the only kids with any chance of making it out of Shellman. If I moved to Alabama, I’d have to start all over again — with school, with coaches and with recruiters.
So we decided: I would stay, and she and my younger sister would move. And I’m so thankful to my momma for allowing me to be part of that difficult conversation. For the last two years of high school, I lived without parents. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone — I stayed with one of my older cousins. So while my mom focused on our finances, I focused on football … and getting out of Shellman.
My momma is a smart woman. She knew I would be responsible, get my homework done and stay outta the streets. And while she fought to make our lives better, I did my very best to make her proud.
You should know that each and every time I suit up for the Carolina Panthers, I’m not playing for the fame or the notoriety. Nah, I’m playing for my former self — for the kids and the single mothers living in underprivileged neighborhoods.
Lots of people know about how I came back from three torn ACLs in three consecutive seasons, or about how I played in the Super Bowl last February after breaking my forearm in the NFC championship game. But they should also know that my motivation to return from these injuries comes from where I come from — the poverty that plagues Shellman to this day. The amount of strife there is staggering, and I want to help the people in my hometown.
It’s crazy to think that we still have communities where a lot of the kids can’t afford pencils and paper for school, not to mention backpacks.
That’s why, along with my wife, Kelly, I launched the Defending Dreams Foundation. Since its inception in 2008, the foundation has stuck to a simple mission: To provide hope where there is no hope, and to make the impossible possible for kids. We work in North Carolina, South Carolina and my home state of Georgia.
The foundation has a few extensions. Each year Defending Dreams partner with the Salvation Army Center of Hope to provide Thanksgiving meals to over 200 battered women and children. We have a meal prepared for each and every one of them, and keep the restaurant that we host the dinner in open after regular hours. It’s really a beautiful thing, and very fun to be around. We also have an annual Christmas toy drive for over 600 kids. And every May, we hold a youth football camp for 300–500 kids, ranging in age from six to 16.
Most recently, we had our annual book-bag giveaway. We partnered with the Panthers and Classroom Central to provide an entire Title I school in North Carolina — a school that serves a high percentage of low-income families — with an entire year’s worth of supplies. Almost 700 book bags and a whole lot of smiles later, all of these kids were ready to go for the first day of school.
It’s crazy to think that we still have communities where a lot of the kids can’t afford pencils and paper for school, not to mention backpacks. Little by little, we’re trying to eliminate the things that their families have to worry about.
Another program in Defending Dreams is the Youth Leadership Academy. Each year, 25–30 middle school students are accepted into this program where we teach kids the skills that will help them become achievement-oriented community leaders. We also try to teach the kids how to be productive students by offering tutors and critical thinking exercises.
And it’s no coincidence that we also regularly schedule free field trips — I want to give every kid a chance to do what I never could.
I consider all the kids in Defending Dreams success stories, but one young man in particular stands out. When I met him, he was in high school — officially too old for the program. But since his younger sister was in the academy, I knew his family pretty well. One day, his mother approached me and explained how he was getting involved with drugs, and asked if we’d allow him to enroll in the program.
Without a doubt, we opened our arms, brought the kid in and attempted to put him on the right track. We brought him and the rest of the students on community-service trips, helped him with his school work and taught him the importance of being a productive community leader.
In a pretty short time, we began to see unbelievable changes in his behavior. Rather than getting into trouble, he found himself a job and started to bring in money for his family. He recently graduated from high school and is now enlisting in the U.S. Army.
Man, from the streets to representing our country? For real? Not in my wildest dreams could I have envisioned being part of so many kids’ lives. And I’m so grateful because I remember that feeling of stepping on the school bus with my cleats on, and I don’t want anyone’s child to go through what I went through.
These days, when I think about my hometown, I’m often reminded of how divided it was. When I was a kid, there was always a white side of town and a black side of town. That was just the norm. But I hated that. And I told myself that if I ever made it out, I was going to do something about it.
Fortunately, Defending Dreams has given me that opportunity. Recently, I went back to Shellman and, with the help of some awesome kids, built my hometown a playground — a really nice one where families from all over can come together and be happy.
I’ll tell you, man, that was the first time — the first time! — I had seen our little town come together. Suddenly children from all walks of life were playing together. And their parents were laughing. It was something that you just never saw in a place like Shellman. And all it took was a little playground in the center of town.
On what was one of the happiest days of my life, our community came together. And that was just so beautiful.
It was so, so beautiful.
Truthfully, nobody ever used to make it out of Shellman. But, Momma, we did. Somehow, someway, we did.
My momma isn’t in Alabama anymore. Nah, she doesn’t have to live there.
When I go to visit her in South Carolina, we sometimes just sit there and laugh, wondering if everything that’s happened to us is a dream. She left me all those years ago because she loved me — because she wanted to earn extra cash to help me.
As a father of four incredible children, and as a husband to an extraordinary wife, I could never imagine leaving my family. For my momma, it had to have been heart-wrenching. But she did it all for me and my sister.
And now, I owe everything to her. We’re so blessed to be in the situation we’re in. Because, truthfully, nobody ever used to make it out of Shellman. But, Momma, we did. Somehow, someway, we did.
Let’s help more kids do it. Let’s keep working so that another kid from Shellman can grow up and create his or her own foundation. Let’s make these kids leaders of tomorrow.
Let’s not leave anyone behind.