Leading the Way For Football Fans



See the original article on the Wall Street Journal website.

The New York Jets and New York Giants are used to signing autographs. But this week, they had their pens poised for a cause.

"When you think of community service and giving back to people who aren't as fortunate, when you do stuff like this, it helps them out," said the Giants' Hakeem Nicks, as he broke from a hoard of fans at Tuesday's Gridiron Gala at the Waldorf-Astoria. "I think stuff like this is always good."

The "stuff" Mr. Nicks referred to is the work of the United Way of New York City, a charity which focuses on community improvement, and has had a 40-year national partnership with the NFL.

Getty Images --Former Jets player Joe Namath signs autographs at the United Way gala.

"When it's good deeds, we know when to come together," Mr. Nicks, who was an honoree of the gala, said of the teams joining together. "We leave football on the field when it comes to stuff like this."

Kyle Wilson, of the Jets, who was also being honored, seconded Mr. Nicks sentiment: "It doesn't happen too often. This is a special place."

The evening held special meaning for Sheena Wright: it was her first event as the president and CEO of United Way NYC, which has raised $23 million for New York families. "The event is obviously a very football centered, 70% male event," she said. "The energy is like no other. We have a one-piece marching band. It's really like the city coming together around a common cause."

Before dinner, the athletes signed what seemed to be an endless slew of autographs. But no one signed more than former Jets' player Joe Namath.

"Joe Namath will sign 600 autographs tonight," said Joseph Cabrera, a co-chairman of the gala. "He's just wonderful. He talks to each person."

"He just keeps going," said Durst Organization President Jonathan Durst, who was also an honoree of the evening.

But "Broadway Joe," as was his nickname during his sports' days, shrugged off the praise. When presented with the question of how many signatures he may have potentially dished out, his joking response was a pithy "12."

"I like to meet folks, and if they think it's special, it's fine with me," he said.

Getty Images -- Kyle Wilson, Anthony Carvette and Hakeem Nicks.

Mr. Namath can't put a number to the years he's been involved with United Way, but said it's been quite a few. "I don't know now…I go back a ways, you see, so I know it's been plenty," he conceded.

Regardless, he knows why the partnership with both the Giants and Jets is so seamless.

"If we were wearing uniforms, it may be different, if it was on that grass with white lines," he laughed, pointing at the two lines of Giants and Jets players, sitting dapperly in suits, chatting with one another.

"I think both Giants and Jets, and people in general, know there is a bigger game than football; it's life you see," he said. "And this is dealing with a lot of people in the big game that may not have had a fair shake to start with, and could use a helping hand, that we all got along the way."

A version of this article appeared May 24, 2013, on page A19 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Leading the Way For Football Fans.