NFL stars from across the league are in Baltimore for the Ed Block Courage Awards, and as part of the community service aspect of the weekend, they spent parts of Sunday and Monday with city children. Many said that the visits were just as meaningful for the players as they were for the people they shared their days with.
"It has been incredible," Chicago Bears guard Matt Slauson said. "All these kids are so much fun. To watch their faces light up is real gratifying for us, the players. To see the hardships that they've had to go through, it has really touched us as players. When we walk in the room and we get to see the impact on them, that impacts us even more. It's been amazing."
Sunday, the NFL players spent time at St. Vincent's Villa, a Catholic Charities-run residential center for emotionally and behaviorally challenged children. A day later, they hosted an outreach day at the Chick Webb Recreation Center in East Baltimore.
Slauson was one of nearly 20 NFL players at the recreation center Monday, where they played games and chatted with several dozen city childre. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young welcomed and thanked the players after a routine from the Institute of Notre Dame cheerleaders.
Other honorees include the Buffalo Bills training staff, voted by its peers as the league's best, and Christina Grimmie of NBC's "The Voice." Grimmie's mother, Tina, was honored for her fight with breast cancer.
Each year, NFL players choose a recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award from their organization, honoring a player who exemplifies courage and sportsmanship in the game.
The honorees' time in Baltimore ends Monday evening with a gala at the downtown Hilton, and many have already gotten a strong impression of the city and the event through the outreach efforts.
"It's been a good opportunity to see these kids, just to be around them," Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu said. "I think the biggest thing that stuck out to me the most is spending time with the kids, none of them are complaining about anything. They're kind of just enjoying the moment. It means a lot."
Mathieu, a New Orleans native, said he saw a lot of similarities between how his hometown and Baltimore are negatively perceived compared to the reality when you get there.
"It's a totally different story once you get to experience it," Mathieu said.
Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce had never been to Baltimore, either, though growing up in Cleveland, he said this city's had a similar feel. The 6-foot-6 tight end towered over the city youth on the basketball court with a smile on his face.
"It's a great cause," he said. "You come out here and you hang out with the kids, have fun with the kids. The awards a prestigious award … so it's an honor to come out here and represent the Kansas City Chiefs, but at the same time, it's a great honor to be here and have fun with all the youth in Baltimore."
Detroit Lions star wide receiver Calvin Johnson said he's plenty familiar with the area and said "being able to spend time with the youth means a lot because we're able to leave a lasting impression on them."
The Ravens' Ed Block honoree, Lardarius Webb, seemed to be taking well to his role as the de facto host of the event. Event organizers said Webb and his friends and family will account for five tables at the gala Monday night, and he was mobbed with photo and autograph requests once he arrived at Chick Webb.
He posted several Instagram photos and videos of his time at St. Vincent Villa and said it was nice to get to focus on the children amid a turbulent football offseason.
"Over this weekend, I've really found the definition of courage, looking at these kids from the Courage Home [at St. Vincent's Villa], seeing what they've been through, the adversity that they were able to overcome in life," Webb said.