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Crusader against child abuse lets athletes see true courage

The Baltimore Sun

The sign that greets visitors is nothing more than an 8-by-10 piece of paper printed off a computer and taped to the office's front door. The chairs in the conference room don't match, the cardboard boxes still aren't unpacked from the recent move and the phone won't stop ringing.

Less than three weeks to go.

The next 10 days make up the busy period, as organizers round up athlete RSVPs and sell the last available tickets for the 29th annual Ed Block Courage Awards banquet. The night of the ceremony, it's all black ties, bright lights and cloth napkins. Behind the scenes, though, everything about the operation is humble, starting with the awards' founder and his noble mission.

The Ed Block Courage Awards are some of the most important awards in sports, and not because they honor the player from each NFL team who best exemplifies courage. These awards mean something bigger, something you can't discern simply by studying a chunk of metal screwed onto a block of wood.

You have to know about St. Vincent's Center and the network of Courage Houses and how this little Baltimore award has grown by leaps and bounds and continues today with a national reach and a stated mission of stamping out child abuse.

Sam Lamantia was a member of the Eastside Athletics Club, an area social group, when his eyes were opened more than three decades ago.

"We didn't even know what child abuse was back then," he says.

When he started this award, honoring a Baltimore Colts player every year, he wanted the money raised to benefit a bigger cause.

Today, 29 years since Joe Ehrmann received the first Ed Block Courage Award, more than 650 players have been honored, more than $7 million has been raised and more than 900,000 children have been touched by the network of Courage Houses, facilities adopted by NFL teams and devoted to improving the lives of abused children, teaching prevention and raising awareness.

"We want one in every NFL city," Lamantia says.

Plans are already under way to dedicate an 18th Courage House this year, in Green Bay, Wis., and don't be surprised if Lamantia tells the folks in Wisconsin the same thing he's told all the others. "I want to put you out of a job," he says. "If we can end child abuse, there's no need for any Courage Houses."

The banquet, scheduled for March 20 this year, is typically the glitzy part of the awards week, but it's rarely the highlight. Before they don tuxes, each year's honorees first visit St. Vincent's Center in Timonium, where about 70 abused children reside for treatment. The football players hang out for five hours, playing games, throwing a ball, eating pizza.

"They get here and see what we do, and suddenly the award isn't the big thing anymore," Lamantia says. "It's the children. They start realizing, 'These kids have the courage. Not me.' "

Every year, it seems, at least one Courage Award winner inquires on how his team can adopt a similar facility. It really is touching to see and hear how everyone responds to the Courage Houses.

The Carolina Panthers held a luncheon to honor their current Courage Award recipient, Colin Branch, in November. Kicker John Kasay was the keynote speaker. After hanging around the Charlotte, N.C., Courage House - Youth Homes, Inc. - and meeting five of the kids who live there, Kasay stunned the luncheon crowd by pledging to pay for each kid's college tuition.

It's easy to recognize the importance of the work. That's why Lamantia has been around so long, even though the job only seems to get tougher. Two years ago, a rift grew in the organization. Different leaders had different visions for the future, and Lamantia thought about walking away.

Though he lost some board members, he says the Ed Block Courage Awards Foundation is back on track. "We've got our momentum going again," he says.

They've moved into a new office in Towson, have two full-time employees and are intent on growing the awards so that when the day comes that Lamantia does have to walk away, the Ed Block Courage Awards will continue.

That, of course, takes money. Lamantia is currently crafting a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, pleading for some special consideration. The NFL used to assist with funding, tens of thousands of dollars a year. And though the NFL passes out more than $8 million in grants to national nonprofit organizations, it has lent only its stamp of approval to the Ed Block Courage Awards the past three years. So, now more than ever, organizers can't afford to rely on a single night for fundraising.

"My prayer, my hope, is that there are some angels out there, some people in the business community who recognize that we're bigger than just an event," Lamantia says.

That's not new. When the Colts left town, the Ed Block Courage Awards grew and became bigger than Baltimore. As long as Lamantia is involved, it's safe to say they'll always be bigger than an event.


Rick Maese -- Points after

Giving thanks: Two more cool things about college basketball - starting all your seniors in their last game in front of a home crowd, and letting even the scrub seniors spend the final minute of their college career on the court. Props to the coaches who treat their seniors right.

Headache: Here's hoping last week's news that Dr. Elliot Pellman has stepped down as chair of the NFL's concussion committee means that change is around the corner. But the fact that he'll continue to serve as a committee member certainly leads us to think otherwise. You might recall that after Pellman testified to a House committee in 2005, The New York Times reported that he had repeatedly exaggerated his credentials. For years he said his medical degree came from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, when in fact he received it from the Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara in Mexico.

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