Johnny Hekker: Sports Can Be A Force For Change

The LA Rams Kicker On Football, Empathy, And The Power Of Passion

At 6 feet 5 inches tall, Johnny Hekker has used his stature and his empathetic nature to call attention to the power of sports as a platform for inclusion. After leading the league last season in punt yardage, the three-time Pro Bowl punter for the Los Angeles Rams set the all-time NFL record for the most punts downed inside the 20 yard line in December.

That month the Rams also named their 2016 “Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year” for civic leadership in the community. In commemoration of the award, Hekker received a $50,000 donation which he directed to The Grace Network, an organization designed to mobilize and provide resources communities to combat human trafficking locally in California and beyond. Hekker’s brother-in-law, Chris Stambaugh, founded the organization in 2009.

Hekker developed his passion for helping those with special needs through his father’s work with adults with developmental disorders, . He helped spread awareness of the powerful nature of sports to promote inclusion by his involvement with the Special Olympics Illinois and TASK (Team Activities for Special Kids), a St. Louis-based nonprofit that offers year-round instructional sports programs for kids with special needs.

After the Rams relocated from St. Louis to Los Angeles last summer, Hekker continued his work with NFL PLAY 60, the league’s movement to encourage kids to become more active, and has worked with the Special Olympics of Southern California . He is also the Los Angeles representative for Waterboys, an organization founded by former teammate Chris Long that focuses on providing clean water for people around the world.

Hekker shares why sports mattered to him in his youth, and why he’s committed to the youth athletes of the future, as told to GOOD.

I grew up in a family with four older brothers. They were always bigger, stronger, and faster. We were always competing, so sports were a natural fit. The first sport I did was gymnastics. My parents owned a cleaning company, and they worked out a deal that we would clean up the gymnastics center at night if we got lessons during the day. For me, that only lasted a few months. I didn’t really have the attention span for it, but it definitely established a good sense of body awareness and flexibility.

But I always wanted to play soccer. I started playing soccer and basketball in elementary school and really enjoyed playing both. I played soccer until fifth grade and continued with basketball through high school. We would be shooting hoops out in the street until it was dark outside. My brothers and friends would play football, but my mom was worried about me playing. I didn’t really have the body type to be a real bruiser.

My brothers had to wait until high school to play football, but I convinced my mom to let me start early. My friend’s dad, Bruce Wilcox, was the coach of the junior team. He was a huge motivating factor for me to get into football. I started playing tight end and defensive end, and realized I could throw and kick pretty well, and had the skill set from soccer. I was passionate about getting better all the time, that’s a quality my brothers instilled in me.

A lot of my high school teammates, we started playing sports together in grade school, and sports definitely gave me that sense of brotherhood, that sense of closeness. It was a good platform to go exercise and just be competitive with my good friends, and learn how to be a team player. In high school (at Bothell High School), playing sports definitely fostered that a lot. We had a pretty successful football team and basketball team, and we really learned how to rally around each other and develop a deep love for one another. I’m still really close with a lot of them because you spend so much time together on the practice field, during workouts, and getting ready to play at the highest level. You really do develop a sense that these guys are my brothers, not even just my friends.

My sense of empathy for others and a desire to give back is definitely rooted in my dad’s influence on my life. My dad was a recreational specialist at a special needs adult facility in Seattle. I would always go and visit him at work and the clients would light up. There was a normalcy about it. There were definitely times when I was uncomfortable, and he would explain it to me as a young kid. I didn’t really understand the difference it made in people’s lives. But a big thing I took away is that they just want to be treated like people. We’re all people, and deep down we want to be loved and cared for and to have fun. My dad’s job was pretty cool because he got to take the clients off-campus—take them to my practices, and take them to the games. It was great for my friends and for me to see they’re fans just like everyone else.

I am kind of spread around in different avenues of philanthropy that I enjoy. But I’m really blessed in the opportunities I’ve had to succeed. I realize that I’m blessed to bless others.

To be involved in Waterboys—to give clean water in sufficient amounts and renewable resources to people in East Africa—is huge. It’s the little things in life you take for granted. I take for granted my mental ability to be able to play football at a really high level. There are kids out there who are striving to be athletic, but who might have a physical or learning disability or handicap. Special Olympics has been an outlet to help them stay active, and to be the athletes they are at their core, to compete and have fun, learn sportsmanship, build social skills, and interactive skills.

Just watching people improve their way of life, there’s nothing more fulfilling. To help change people’s lives for the better is huge, and at the end of the day, that’s what I want to be about. And also inspire others to donate their time and be present. There are a lot of people who aren’t well-off and need assistance. A lot of times they just feel forgotten. To just show you want to share resources and share time—that’s what’s most impactful. You can see the impact on people’s faces. It’s definitely a feeling, when someone thanks you for your attention and just being there to listen and trying to involve yourself in their world.

Meeting parents of Special Olympics athletes is always something that’s so incredible. It’s very difficult to be a parent of a child with disabilities, so to see that uplifting of the spirit is so powerful. They’ve told me, “This has been such a great program for my child, the teamwork and sense of sportsmanship. Socially, their behavior has been improving rapidly because of this.”

Sports provide an amazing platform for awesome change.

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