Donnie Edwards began working with American military veterans while he was still playing football in a career that ended in 2008.
On Wednesday, his extended commitment was recognized when the former Chargers and UCLA linebacker was named winner of the Salute to Service Award, which is given annually by the NFL and USAA, a financial services company.
Edwards was drawn to the cause through his grandfather, Maximino Razo, a World War II veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor.
“I grew up without a father and he essentially was my father figure,” Edwards said. “He taught me so much about life and appreciating what we have in this country.”
Edwards, who started his career with Kansas City, was a Charger from 2002 to 2006. During that time, the self-described nerd began taking part in war reenactments.
That’s when he met a WW II veteran who expressed an interest in one day returning to Normandy. From there, Edwards launched his Best Defense Foundation, which, among other things, offers a program that allows veterans to visit former battlefields.
Before his final season with the Chargers, Edwards took a small group of veterans to Normandy. The program has since grown, and in 2019 the foundation organized five such events to various battlefields.
“Guys can finally find that closure,” Edwards said. “They can share their stories and get them off their backs, with other people who speak the same language. That’s what’s so special about it.”
As part of the award, USAA will contribute $25,000 in Edwards’ honor to the official aid societies representing all five military branches. The NFL will match that contribution to Edwards’ military charity of choice.