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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.

Sports
via Collection of the New-York Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons

Fredrick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. At the age of 10 he was given to the Auld family.

As a child, he worked as a house slave and was able to learn to read and write, and he attempted to teach his fellow slaves the same skills.

At the age of 15, he was given to Thomas Auld, a cruel man who beat and starved his slaves and thwarted any opportunity for them to practice their faith or to learn to read or write.

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Culture
via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

On April 20, 1889 at the Braunau am Inn, in Upper Austria Salzburger located at Vorstadt 15, Alois and Klara Hitler brought a son into the world. They named him Adolph.

Little did they know he would grow up to be one of the greatest forces of evil the world has ever known.

The Hitlers moved out of the Braunau am Inn when Adolph was three, but the three-story butter-colored building still stands. It has been the subject of controversy for seven decades.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

The building was a meeting place for Nazi loyalists in the 1930s and '40s. After World War II, the building has become an informal pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and veterans to glorify the murderous dictator.

The building was a thorn in the side to local government and residents to say the least.

RELATED: He photographed Nazi atrocities and buried the negatives. The unearthed images are unforgettable.

For years it was owned by Gerlinde Pommer, a descendant of the original owners. The Austrian government made numerous attempts to purchase it from her, but to no avail. The building has served many purposes, a school, a library, and a makeshift museum.

In 1989, a stone from the building was inscribed with:

"For Peace, Freedom

and Democracy.

Never Again Fascism.

Millions of Dead Remind [us]."

via Jo Oh / Wikimedia Commons

For three decades it was home to an organization that offered support and integration assistance for disabled people. But in 2011, the organization vacated the property because Pommer refused to bring it up to code.

RELATED: 'High Castle' producers destroyed every swastika used on the show and the video is oh-so satisfying

In 2017, the fight between the government and Pommer ended with it seizing the property. Authorities said it would get a "thorough architectural remodeling is necessary to permanently prevent the recognition and the symbolism of the building."

Now, the government intends to turn it into a police station which will surely deter any neo-Nazis from hanging around the building.

Austria has strict anti-Nazi laws that aim to prohibit any potential Nazi revival. The laws state that anyone who denies, belittles, condones or tries to justify the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity shall be punished with imprisonment for one year up to ten years.

In Austria the anti-Nazi laws are so strict one can go to prison for making the Nazi hand salute or saying "Heil Hitler."

"The future use of the house by the police should send an unmistakable signal that the role of this building as a memorial to the Nazis has been permanently revoked," Austria's IInterior Minister, Wolfgang Peschorn said in a statement.

The house is set to be redesigned following an international architectural competition.

Communities
via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle" debuted the first episode of its final season last week.

The show is loosely based on an alternative history novel by Philip K. Dick that postulates what would happen if Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan controlled the United States after being victorious in World War II.

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Politics
via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

RELATED: The 1975's singer bravely kissed a man at a Dubai concert to protest anti-LGBT oppression

In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

RELATED: Alan Turing will appear on the 50-pound note nearly 70 years after being persecuted for his sexuality

Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?

Lifestyle

Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

The Italian region of Veneto, which includes the city of Venice, is currently experiencing historic flooding. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has stated that the flooding is a direct result of climate change, with the tide measuring the highest level in 50 years. The city (which is actually a collection of 100 islands in a lagoon—hence its famous canal streets), is no stranger to regular flooding, but is currently on the brink of declaring a state of emergency as waters refuse to recede.

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