At first glance, you wouldn’t imagine that Ravens rookie Bradley Bozeman would have a first-person story about bullying.
The same goes for Nikki Hegstetter, a former University of Alabama basketball star who is 6 feet 2 and can literally see eye-to-eye with the 320-pound NFL lineman she will soon marry.
Bozeman, 23, cleared that up pretty quick for the kids at New Town Elementary School earlier this week when he and Hegstetter stopped by for a visit as part of their personal quest to end childhood bullying. Later that day, they carried that same message to Fort Garrison Elementary in Pikesville.
“I might look like a 320-pound football player now,” he told them, “but when I was your age, I was just a short fat kid.”
Even if you’re not a Ravens fan, you might remember Bozeman and Hegstetter, who got engaged on national television in January immediately after Bozeman’s Crimson Tide defeated Georgia in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
Bozeman was the center on that team before he was drafted by the Ravens in the sixth round of April’s draft. Hegstetter was the center on the basketball team. It was a match made in sports heaven, but both knew what it was like to grow up looking different than everybody else.
“I was 5 foot 10 in the fifth grade,’’ Hegstetter told the kids. Enough said.
They formed the Bradley and Nikki Bozeman Foundation to tell their story to youngsters and got the campaign underway with 20 school visits in Alabama right before the draft. Bradley didn’t know if he would be taken in the draft, but he knew he wanted to tackle this issue.
Now, they live in Reisterstown and have brought the campaign to Maryland with the help of JL Sports agent Seth Katz, who grew up in Pikesville, and state senator Bobby Zirkin, who represents that area.
Their message is simple.
“It’s your life and you only get one of them,’’ Bozeman tells the kids. “You don’t want to let somebody else determine whether you enjoy it.”
“The message is to know who you are as a person, know that what other people say about you doesn’t matter,’’ he said later. “It’s about what you think of yourself and how you value yourself in this world. This world is harsh. Even as adults, social media for me still is a bullying platform. Last season, I messed up a snap and there is all kinds of threats and crazy stuff and they don’t even know me. It’s a big problem in our society.”
Professional athletes visiting schools is not a new thing, of course. Every professional sports team has a community relations department that schedules personal appearances for its players. The Ravens and Orioles do a good job of supporting school programs and charities.
Zirkin and Katz want to take it to a new level. Zirkin is running unopposed for reelection this year, so he has used some of his time away from his law practice to form Chesapeake Philanthropy Consulting, L.L.C. Katz is linked to a family law firm that already had a nonprofit division.
They share a vision of an organized network of well-known athletes that address social issues in communities around the nation.
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“So we put something together,’’ Zirkin said. “Because of my relationship with Seth, we started talking about this some months ago and the idea is to really do a deep dive into getting involved in the community, whether you’re interested in the issue of bullying like the Bozeman’s are, or inner-city literacy or mental health.”
Katz, who represents Bozeman and other pro football players as part of the Connecticut-based agency headed by Joe Linta, said his firm has long recognized the importance of athletes digging deep into the communities where they work.
“Incredibly important,’’ Katz said. “You look at the opportunity that they’re given and part of that is give and take at college. The ballplayer is providing a value to the university. The university is giving him an education. He can showcase his skills. But the opportunity to take that to the next level and play in the National Football League … with wealth comes responsibility and part of that responsibility is to give back. Whether they like it or not, they are role models for kids, and for grownups sometimes.”
Hegstetter and Bozeman are particularly focused on the negative impact of the internet on children and teens.
“I tell the kids, when your parents are like, ‘It was so much harder back in the day,’ I’m like, ‘Actually, you didn’t have internet for people to bully you, so it was actually a little bit easier on the bullying side.’ These kids have it really hard and that’s why it’s becoming a bigger and bigger issue because of the accessibility of the internet.”
The consequences of cyberbullying can be horrific. Studies have shown an increase in teen suicide that coincides with the surge in cellphone use and adolescent participation on social media platforms.
“I think it’s a huge issue, with the social media and all that,’’ Bozeman said. “It’s so easy to sit behind a screen and type something and send it out. It’s just so easy and these kids, they don’t get away from it. You come to school, you get picked on by the people who pick on you at school. You go home and go on the internet and there’s people still picking on you. You go to sleep and you wake up and it’s still the same thing. I think it’s a really big issue for some of these kids. “