Darren Sharper's annual Thanksgiving ritual is not unlike that of many Americans: Hop in the car, drive a few miles, meet with family and friends, dish out generous portions of food, give hugs all around, and get back in the car to go home.
But Sharper's routine is anything but routine.
Like many displaced Americans, he longs to be around family when the holidays roll around. Trouble is, Darren spends Thanksgiving in Green Bay, where he's a Pro Bowl safety for the Packers. Older brother Jamie is in Baltimore, where he's a linebacker for the defending Super Bowl-champion Ravens. And the rest of the family is in Virginia, where the Sharper brothers grew up.
So every Thanksgiving, Darren does the next-best thing: He celebrates the holiday with an extended family of nearly 600 youngsters from the Milwaukee boys and girls clubs.
"I don't get the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving with my family," Sharper says. "So I thought, 'Why not have a home away from home?'"
Since 1998, that home has been Milwaukee's Capital Christian Center, where Sharper hosts an annual turkey dinner for the youngsters.
"We know that there are a lot of families who don't have the chance to sit down and enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, so we invite some of those who are less fortunate to come down and join us," says Sharper, who makes the two-hour drive from Green Bay to Milwaukee, then drives back in time for practice the next day (this year's event will be held the day after Thanksgiving because the Packers play in Detroit on the holiday). "It's a festive atmosphere, and it's a lot of fun."
"The kids are all over Darren," says Darryn DeWalt of DCT Sports Marketing, a friend who helped launch the annual Darren Sharper Thanksgiving Kids' Cafe. "He loves to sit down and talk with the kids, and they love him."
"Darren gives them that glimmering light of hope that they can work their way out of whatever situation they're in. He's a living testament to that. He struggled his first couple of years in the league, but he worked hard, and it paid off when he made All-Pro last year. The kids can see that."
Sharper is just one of scores of NFL players who give of themselves throughout the year, and particularly at Thanksgiving:Last year, Panthers tight end Wesley Walls donated turkeys to 130 senior citizens, while coach George Seifert and a dozen Panthers players, wives, and moms distributed turkeys through the club's Tackle Hunger program.Chargers linebacker Junior Seau and his wife, Gina, open their restaurant, Seau's, for Thanksgiving dinner to 400 inhabitants of homeless shelters and victims of domestic violence.Chiefs tackle Marcus Spears and his wife, Vondershell, last year sponsored their inaugural Thanksgiving Food Distribution, donating 880 prepackaged food boxes, hams, and turkeys -- which is enough to feed a family of four for one week.Falcons wide receiver Terance Mathis gave two tickets to an Atlanta-Seattle game to anyone who brought a frozen turkey to a pre-Thanksgiving event last season -- Mathis in turn donated the turkeys to three separate charities.Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jason Gildon hosted a Thanksgiving dinner last year for the Light of Life Ministries Family Assistance Program in Pittsburgh, which provides aid to homeless women and children who are attempting to overcome drug and alcohol problems.For more than 30 years, Broncos staff, coaches, alumni, current players, friends, and families have spent one day each November sorting, boxing, and delivering a ready-to-cook meal in a Thanksgiving outreach program that provides meals for more than 30,000 people in the Denver area.Lions defensive linemen Robert Porcher and Tracy Scroggins distributed turkeys to more than 500 needy families last November through Focus: HOPE.The Jaguars' annual holiday food drive last November accumulated more than 14 tons of nonperishable food for donation in northeast Florida.Vikings coach Dennis Green, quarterback Daunte Culpepper, and teammates partnered with United Way on a "Reason to be Thankful" celebration the day after playing in Dallas last Thanksgiving Day.The past two years, New York Giants cornerback Jason Sehorn has conducted a "Turkey Trot" to deliver meals to single-parent homes in Elizabeth, New Jersey.Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson distributed turkeys to more than 400 families in the Tampa area. Two of Johnson's teammates, linebacker Derrick Brooks and quarterback Shaun King, each donated 100 turkey dinners to local families and the Boys and Girls Clubs in the Tampa area.The Cincinnati Bengals have a trio of players who are very active off the field during the Thanksgiving season.Second-year wide receiver Peter Warrick distributed more than 200 food baskets in his hometown of Bradenton, Florida. The event was sponsored by the Peter Warrick Foundation.Tackle Willie Anderson provided turkeys to the public via other charitable foundations. Anderson purchased and sent 85 turkeys to the White Stone Missionary Baptist Church in Mobile, Alabama and 66 turkeys to the Church of God Pentecostal Church in Montgomery, Alabama and the Trinity Garden Boys and Girls Club of Mobile, Alabama.Quarterback Akili Smith bought all of the turkeys that were distributed from the Free Store/Food Bank. Smiths Foundation benefits needy children in both Cincinnati and his hometown of San Diego.The list goes on and on. Indeed, every NFL team has players who participate in club programs or on their own. In Green Bay, many of Sharper's teammates, including safety LeRoy Butler, wide receiver Antonio Freeman, and running backs Ahman Green and William Henderson, join him for the Kids' Cafe."The kids are happy to see NFL players, but they're also grateful for the chance to have a special meal," Sharper says. "And some see others less fortunate than themselves, too, so they learn that we all have things that we need to be thankful for."Sharper is involved in all aspects of the dinner, from planning to coordinating with Second Harvest Food Bank (which helps provide the meal) to serving food."I want to be there," he says. "To me, writing a check and just walking away is superficial. I want to be involved."Sharper's community involvement extends throughout the year. He regularly participates in fundraising activities for schools, charities, and hospitals in Wisconsin and Virginia."Darren has a huge heart," DeWalt says."I get a real good feeling from it," Sharper says. "At last year's dinner, you could just see from the smile on the kids' faces how much the opportunity meant to them. You could see how happy they were." Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times