GOOD

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
Ottawa Humane Society / Flickr

The Trump Administration won't be remembered for being kind to animals.

In 2018, it launched a new effort to reinstate cruel hunting practices in Alaska that had been outlawed under Obama. Hunters will be able to shoot hibernating bear cubs, murder wolf and coyote cubs while in their dens, and use dogs to hunt black bears.

Efforts to end animal cruelty by the USDA have been curtailed as well. In 2016, under the Obama Administration, the USDA issued 4,944 animal welfare citations, in two years the numbers dropped to just 1,716.

Keep Reading Show less
Science
via I love butter / Flickr

We often dismiss our dreams as nonsensical dispatches from the mind while we're deep asleep. But recent research proves that our dreams can definitely affect our waking lives.

People often dream about their significant others and studies show it actually affects how we behave towads them the next day.

"A lot of people don't pay attention to their dreams and are unaware of the impact they have on their state of mind," said Dylan Selterman, psychology lecturer at the University of Maryland, says according to The Huffington Post. "Now we have evidence that there is this association."

Keep Reading Show less
Health
via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

A controversial editorial on America's obesity epidemic and healthcare by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" inspired a thoughtful, and funny, response by James Cordon. It also made for a great debate about healthcare that Americans are avoiding.

At the end of the September 6th episode of "Real Time, " Maher turned to the camera for his usual editorial and discussed how obesity is a huge part of the healthcare debate that no one is having.

"At Next Thursday's debate, one of the candidates has to say, 'The problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat shit and too much of it.' All the candidates will mention their health plans but no one will bring up the key factor: the citizens don't lift a finger to help," Maher said sternly.

Keep Reading Show less
Politics

There is no shortage of proposals from the, um, what's the word for it… huge, group of Democratic presidential candidates this year. But one may stand out from the pack as being not just bold but also necessary; during a CNN town hall about climate change Andrew Yang proposed a "green amendment" to the constitution.

Keep Reading Show less
test
Me Too Kit

The creator of the Me Too kit — an at home rape kit that has yet to hit the market — has come under fire as sexual assault advocates argue the kit is dangerous and misleading for women.

The kit is marketed as "the first ever at home kit for commercial use," according to the company's website. "Your experience. Your kit. Your story. Your life. Your choice. Every survivor has a story, every survivor has a voice." Customers will soon be able order one of the DIY kits in order to collect evidence "within the confines of the survivor's chosen place of safety" after an assault.

"With MeToo Kit, we are able to collect DNA samples and other tissues, which upon testing can provide the necessary time-sensitive evidence required in a court of law to identify a sexual predator's involvement with sexual assault," according to the website.

Keep Reading Show less
Health