HAMPTON – When Jerod Mayo was just a kid, the kindness of strangers helped buoy his spirits and fill the bellies of his family. He's never forgotten.
Now he's trying to return the favor.
Mayo, a Kecoughtan High graduate who is about to begin his seventh season as a linebacker with the New England Patriots, was at a Food Lion in Hampton on Nickerson Road to hand out gift cards and groceries Wednesday morning to families in need.
With the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank serving as organizers for the event, Mayo donated $10,000 to feed 100 families for a week, and Food Lion matched the donation with $10,000 worth of canned foods and gift cards. More than 100 cars drove through the parking lot outside the grocery store to collect gift cards and groceries, and rub elbows with the local hero.
"I was very surprised, but also very elated to see the people come out and the smiles on their faces," said Mayo of his reaction to the turnout. "You can't pay for things like that.
"I think it was my duty to give back."
Mayo has firsthand knowledge of what a little assistance can mean to a family. He remembers getting "angel food baskets" filled full of cereal and canned goods delivered to his family from his church when he was a child.
"They would go a long way when you grow up in a house with four boys with my mom and my stepdad," said Mayo, a 6-foot-1, 250-pound alum of Tennessee, where he was a first team All-Southeastern Conference selection before getting taken in 2008 in the first round of the NFL draft by New England with the 10th overall pick. "It helped out a lot.
"I can relate to all of (the families in need). I grew up right around the corner."
New England opens training camp July 23, which means Mayo doesn't have long to wait before he has to test a surgically-repaired torn pectoral muscle. After earning his second trip to the Pro Bowl at the end of the 2012 season, he saw last season cut short when he suffered the pectoral tear Oct. 13 in New England's 30-27 comeback win against New Orleans.
He went through New England's mini-camp last month without any problems. His continued progress could be essential for a New England team that isn't particularly deep at the linebacker spots.
"I've been fortunate not to have a setback yet," said Mayo, whose Patriots will join the Washington Redskins on Aug. 4-6 in Richmond for a three-day joint training camp at the Redskins' training facility. "We'll see once training camp starts in a couple weeks how my pec feels, but I know the coaching staff will ease me in and we'll see how it goes.
"It was very difficult (missing 10 games and the playoffs last season). It was my first time having an injury that set me out for an extended period of time. It was hard, but at the same time, I was rooting on my teammates and just trying to get ready for this year."
In addition to dozens of volunteers at Wednesday's event, Mayo was joined by former Kecoughtan teammate Byron Tillery, who now plays on the defensive line for the York (Pa.) Capitals in the American Indoor Football organization.
Though Tillery is in town to put together a youth football camp this weekend for 6-to-14-year-old players at the Y.H. Thomas Community Center in Hampton, he came back a day early – flying Tuesday night from Utah to Charlotte, N.C. to Virginia – to help Mayo at the food donation event.
From Tillery's perspective, Mayo's generosity has been infectious.
"We all take it as a brotherhood to be here for each other, whether it's for the small things or if it's for giving back to the community," said Tillery, who added his youth camp will include an autograph session Friday from 6-to-7 p.m. featuring several arena league players, and an on-field camp from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday with all proceeds from a $10 camp fee funding equipment and uniforms for the community center's youth football program.
"(Mayo is) one of my biggest role models. I always see him out in the community, always see him helping."
Wood can be reached at 757-247-4642Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun