There was a time, years ago, when Ravens running back Anthony Allen and his father, Amos, had a regular ritual. They'd close up the martial arts studio where Amos was an instructor, and they'd head to Winn Dixie.
The Winn Dixies in Tampa, Fla., where Anthony Allen was raised, had a deal. The supermarket chain would sell customers their left over chicken for half price, but only if you showed up 30 minutes before closing. Anthony Allen would wait in the car, and his father — a single parent working two jobs — would buy as much food as they could afford. Typically, it was all the food they could afford for several days.
"We went through a lot together, me and him," said Allen, a rookie who made the Ravens this year after a stellar career at Georgia Tech. "To be honest, that was really some of the funnest times. Because you really had to depend on your family. Even though we had the situation we were in, we never wanted for anything. Because everything we really wanted was right there."
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Allen's family — particularly his father, now a retired military officer living off disability — has never forgotten what it felt like to struggle, especially around the holidays. And that's why, to this day, Amos and Anthony Allen will spend several months gathering boxes and boxes of food and clothing to distribute to homeless people in Tampa around the holidays.
"My father has overcome a lot," Anthony Allen said. "I'm really proud of him. I remember holidays when he would wrap up stuff that was already in the house, just to make it feel like the holidays. This is definitely an important time of year for me."
Amos Allen, who suffered nerve damage in an Army accident years ago and can't walk without a cane these days, delivered the family's donation Thursday. But by no means is it a one-time gesture. Allen and his wife, Heather, make lunches and try to feed people on a weekly basis.
"I find myself feeding kids these days who are 17 and 18 years old," Amos Allen said. "They might have left home, moved to a different state, and now they find themselves lost. I usually try to throw a few dollars in their lunches and try to encourage them to call their parents back home and just tell them they love them."
The Allens aren't alone in their effort to make a difference in peoples' lives around the holidays. The Ravens have a large group of players who have quietly been reaching out to people in the community, either here in Baltimore, or in the areas where they were raised. Many of them — Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Jameel McClain, Cary Williams, Cory Redding, Torrey Smith and Brandon McKinney among them — were inspired by their own difficult circumstances. It's something the organization takes considerable pride in, even though many of the players are a little uncomfortable when their good deeds become publicized.
"I think it's become a really neat part of our [organization's] culture," said Melanie LeGrande, the Ravens Director of Community Relations. "And I know a lot of guys go out and do stuff on their own, without even telling me."
The Ravens have 17 players who have set up charitable foundations in their name, which LeGrande said is one of the highest totals in the league, if not the most in the NFL. And that only scratches the surface. The defensive line pools money throughout the entire year and gives it to LeGrande around the holidays, asking only that she do something good with it. Some plays adopt families for Christmas and personally deliver gifts to their house. Others adopt entire schools.
Defensive lineman Cory Redding doesn't have an official foundation, but he decided this year he wanted to adopt a middle school of underprivileged kids. He chose Garrison Middle School, and promised every student he would provide them tickets to a Ravens game this year if they signed a pledge stating that they would "come to school every day prepared to learn, be respectful, follow all rules, make a maximum effort in learning and completing all assignments."
Redding hosted an awards luncheon last week for the kids who lived up to the pledge, and he makes it a point to meet with some of the kids after every home game. He'll meet with them again after Saturday's game against the Browns.
"I think we've gone away from teaching our kids the traditions of how to be a man, be a woman, and do what's right," Redding said. "We don't have fathers, or uncles, or big brothers in their lives. Those guys are either dead, in jail or gone. We've got to help our youth somehow. I'm only one man, trying to do what I can. But even a small gesture can go a long way. Hopefully one day they can pay it forward and remember someone did something for them when they were young."
Cornerbacks Chris Carr and Cary Williams joined the Ravens cheeleaders and Baltimore's mascot, Poe, on a trip to Union Memorial Hospital last week. They just spent time talking to patients, listening to their stories, trying to brighten their day.
"I think sometimes you take for granted how people feel about the Ravens, and how much a professional team means to this city," Carr said. "I feel uncomfortable sometimes because I just think of myself as a guy who plays sports. I'm not anything special. But just talking to people in the hospital, talking to them about what they've been through, you realize what it means to them. It's a good time to try and pick up people's spirits. I think that's what life's about. If you have a heart, you should want to help people out."
Ray Rice gets so many requests this time of year, he feels a little guilty he can't accommodate them all. But he did co-host a holiday party this year with Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts at the Port Discovery Children's Museum, where he got to spend time with — and give presents to — kids from local hospitals.
"I think it's our job as athletes to not only take care of business on the field, but be active in the community," Rice said. "Kids look up us. People look up to us. People live through us. When they get a chance to be around us, they see that we're human, and we have a giving spirit. We know at the flip of a coin we could be on the opposite side of it. I'm not a guy who hides. I want to go out in the community and meet people and see their smiles, because for me, that's priceless."
Brandon McKinney asked several of his teammates this year to contribute to a toy drive he did with the West Port Boys and Girls Club, and said it was a big success. In the past, he'd been working mostly with his foundation back in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, but this year he also wanted to reach out to kids in Baltimore, if only to share his experiences.
"I just tell them my story, that I was a Prop 48 kid when I went to Michigan State," McKinney said. "I was an undrafted player. I had to put in a lot of hard work just to get where I am. I didn't always have what I wanted or what I needed growing up. I just try to tell kids that's OK."
LeGrande said a lot of Ravens players come to her every year interested in doing something, but ask for guidance on how to help the maximum number of people possible. In those instances, the team will partner with the Maryland Food Bank and purchase food in bulk at wholesale prices so they can stretch the dollars as far as possible. Sometimes, though, what's equally important is just getting the player to share his own personal story.
"Everyone has a story they can tell," LeGrande said. "And when people hear it, I think they're really blown away. I mean, Jameel McClain literally lived in a Salvation Army. He gets it. When he talks to people, he's not doing it for attention. He's thanking God that he's on the other side of things now. That's pretty powerful."