It also counts on this field

The Baltimore Sun

Gather around, NFL draft picks. Grab your shoulder pads and new playbooks and please find a seat. There are a couple of people you need to meet.

Our first speaker today is Sarah Blackwell. She is 81 years old and has lived in the same home in Turners Station for more than six decades. Her husband, Reggie, worked at the Sparrows Point shipyard and later Bethlehem Steel. They bought their house at the southern end of Dundalk -- the oldest black neighborhood in the area -- when they married, and together they raised two children there. After 59 years of marriage, Reggie died three years ago.

"So many things around here needed to be done," Blackwell said, with a checklist that includes everything from the floors to the windows to the yard. "But I'm not able to get it done, not financially, not physically."

Right now, NFL draft picks, you're probably wondering what an 81-year-old woman in a distant corner of Baltimore County has to do with you and your budding football career. You probably have other things to worry about -- a big-screen television, your new ride, what number you'll wear on your back next fall. But just sit still a bit longer and let's meet our next speaker.

Derrick Mason is a wide receiver with the Ravens and is entering his 12th season in the NFL. You learn a few things in that kind of time. Sure, you pick up on which cornerbacks are breathing heavy by the third quarter, but you also learn what it means to be a pro athlete, which is why Mason is here today.

While you were huddling with your family and friends watching last weekend's draft and waiting for the phone to ring, Mason was out in Turners Station. His team Saturday was called Rebuilding Together Baltimore, and they were going to homes like Blackwell's, doing the important work that, for a variety of reasons, some homeowners can't do themselves.

More on this in a second, NFL draft picks. Ask yourself why a million-dollar athlete such as Mason would spend a beautiful weekend in spring working on a stranger's home.

Here, I'll let him explain:

"It's been truly a blessing for me to be able to give to a city that has given me so much the last three years," Mason said. "As a player, I think that's ultimately all you want to do. While you're playing this game, what did you do -- whether it be in the short term or long term -- what did you do to help out the community that you were in?"

It's not a question enough athletes ask themselves. For that matter, it's not a question enough nonathletes ask themselves.

There's a lot more to being a football player than simply shooting the A-gap, learning your pass routes and picking up the blitz. You're not just part of a new team; you're a part of a new community. Your potential stretches beyond Sundays.

"It would be an injustice to allow a city to give so much and embrace you so much and you not give nothing back," Mason said. "You were here three or four or five years? You just go and play. Then leave? They're not going to remember you. Yeah, you were a good football player ... but besides that, what are they going to remember you by?

"This is the place I live all year-round. ... This is where I'm going to spend the bulk of my time at, here in Baltimore. So if I'm going to spend the bulk of my time here, this is where I'm going to have the most impact."

Mason doesn't have much experience with a hammer. But his foundation did donate $25,000 to the workday efforts in Turners Station, and Mason was one of 1,000 volunteers wearing purple T-shirts. He chatted with homeowners and volunteers and got his hands dirty by doing some yardwork.

In all, Mason and the large group of volunteers made repairs to 40 homes. At Blackwell's, they laid new carpet, fixed the gutters, painted the fence and cleaned the yard. "Such a blessing," she said.

Rebuilding Together Baltimore is a nonprofit that has been around for 19 years and has fixed more than 1,000 homes around the city.

"He's a high-profile person, but he was so gracious and helpful that he really made homeowners feel special," said Bonnie Bessor, executive director of Rebuilding Together Baltimore.

So make yourselves at home, NFL draft picks. You'll soon find your team is bigger than just the men in that locker room. And your contribution here can be bigger than a block or a tackle, more meaningful than opening a bar or nightclub.

As a member of the local team, you'll be watched with unmatched fervor and excitement on Sundays. As Mason can attest, what you do those other days will be noticed and appreciated as well. Ultimately, that's how you can leave a footprint that lasts.

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