Goal to go

The Baltimore Sun

Matt Stover, a Dallas native who once sold programs in the parking lot at Texas Stadium as a young Cowboys fan, returns to the Irving, Texas, landmark this weekend to help close it down.

After 18 seasons in the NFL, the Ravens kicker, 40, has seen his share of openings and closings in the NFL, some bitter, some sweet. Not many have carried the weight of tomorrow night's game against the Cowboys, who move into a new stadium next season.

This is the Ravens' biggest game of the season, after they lost last week's biggest game of the season to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens need to win their final two games to ensure themselves a spot in the AFC playoffs. The Cowboys are no less desperate in the NFC.

In a game of such magnitude, how nice would it be for Stover to kick the game-winning field goal in the final seconds of Texas Stadium and help the Ravens take another step toward the postseason?

"You've got to dream of it," he said. "You've got to prepare for it, so if it comes, you're ready. That goes for every game, though, not just this one."

And every facet of his life.

Stover is always prepared - for football, for his family's future, for the responsibilities of his faith.

He is a generous Christian steward, a sharp corporate CEO, a loving father and husband, and one of the most reliable kickers in NFL history.

Befitting a player whose pressure-packed appearances on the field either gain or lose points for his team, Stover is loath to talk about his generosity - for fear someone will think he seeks credit. In his case, actions drown out words.

The Matt Stover Foundation last week sent out checks worth $150,000 for various charitable causes. That's a portion of what his foundation hands out in one year, and it doesn't include the money that comes directly from Stover's pocket.

He declined this week to specify how much money he and his wife, Debbie, have given out over the past 10 years, but he indicated it was in the range of "several hundred thousand dollars.

"I've tried my best not to make it about Matt Stover," he said. "It's about how we can give back to the community. We're mere stewards of what we have. Nothing is ours, including our own lives. Therefore I have to be a good steward of what's been given to me."

Stover, who has a marketing degree from Louisiana Tech, took advantage of the NFL's entrepreneurial program to study business at both the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania) and the Kellogg School of Management (Northwestern University). He also tapped into NFL Charities and the Ravens' All Community Team (ACT) to receive grants for his foundation.

Two years ago, when NFL Charities required an audit with grant applications, executives were stunned to see how much of his own money Stover was contributing.

"He's among the most philanthropic and generous with his own money," said David Krichavsky, the NFL's community relations director. "A number of players are incredibly giving, incredibly generous with their time and money. Matt is among a handful of players who go above and beyond."

Stover and his wife operate their foundation with corporate efficiency - they had just $1,800 in overhead this year - but they are not just about cutting checks. Both are actively engaged in the community. One of their favorite events is the three-day Festival of Trees, held at the Timonium Fairgrounds the weekend after Thanksgiving by the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

This year, Stover performed a reading Friday night, after which he signed autographs and posed for pictures. He stayed for 90 minutes, signing everything from shoes, shirts and pants to paper.

Lainey LeBow-Sachs, the executive vice president of external relations for Kennedy Krieger, is appreciative of Stover's dedication to helping families in the Baltimore area.

"He's such a mensch," LeBow-Sachs said. "He's the real deal. In my career in politics [she was William Donald Schaefer's top aide], I've met a lot of people. He knows he's made it big and it doesn't go to his head. He and Debbie are successful in what they're doing, and they know how to give back - not just money, but time.

"I've had other people, football players, who've come, did the reading, walked off the stage and didn't look at one person. He's a hero to me, not because of football, but he's a hero in terms of who he is himself."

The Stovers also participate each April in a Kennedy Krieger program called ROAR (ride on for autism research). And his foundation recently treated 200 children from St. Vincent's Center, Villa Maria and Casey Cares to an advance screening of the IMAX version of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.

Stover said the foundation raises $50,000 through grants and his own speaking engagements. That money is sent to places like Johns Hopkins Children's Center, Villa Maria, a reading program called Pathways, and even two high school football teams made up of home-schooled kids in Carroll (Crusaders) and Harford counties (Saints).

What's more, Stover, a devout Christian, gives 10 percent of his $1 million salary to his church.

"It appears he's trying to build a legacy," said Kenny Abrams, the community relations director for the Ravens, "so people will remember the great things he's doing in the community."

Stover's legacy on the field is solid, too. He has kicked 456 field goals in his NFL career and ranks as the second-most accurate active kicker behind the Cincinnati Bengals' Shayne Graham (85.9 percent to Stover's 83.7 percent). He ranks third in career field goals behind Morten Andersen (565) and Gary Anderson (538).

Andersen was 47 in his final season in the NFL (2007), and George Blanda was still kicking at 48. Stover will be 41 in January. He apparently has the genes for similar longevity.

"He has a lot of talent, and he's very skilled," said Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg. "He knows exactly how he wants to kick the ball, and he has refined his technique to the point where it's a very exact thing for him.

"The other part of it is just his mental preparation. He's a very strong kicker mentally. He understands the game, he understands his role in the game, he understands how to get himself ready. And lastly, I think it really speaks to his conditioning. ... If you didn't know that he was 40 years old, you'd think he was a younger player."

Stover is in the final year of his contract and wants to remain in Baltimore. Two of his three children (Jenna, 13, and Jacob, 12) attend McDonogh School.

"McDonogh is a great place; you couldn't ask for anything better across the country," Stover said. "Is it possible we would be asked to go? Sure. I've got to perform well, No. 1. Whether they want to bring me back is all about them because I don't have a contract after this year."

When Stover's kicking career finally ends, he expects to go into ministry work.

"I am trying to make this world a better place," he said. "My faith has a lot to do with that. The kicking is a privilege, playing in the NFL is a privilege. To be able to kick as well as I have for all these years is a God-given thing. I can honestly tell you, I can't take credit for it."

RAVENS (9-5) @COWBOYS (9-5)

Tomorrow, 8:15 p.m.

TV: Ch. 11, NFL

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Cowboys by 4

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