Thomas Morstead stood there just outside the tunnel to the U.S. Bank Stadium visitor’s locker room, still in full pads, still in black and gold, still not quite believing. All around him: delirium.
His side searing with white-hot pain from the tear in his ribcage cartilage he’d suffered in a tackle back in the first quarter, a hundred years ago. The longtime New Orleans Saints punter watched as the Minnesota Vikings celebrated the most improbable turnaround in playoff history, a prayer begged and answered. Not three minutes ago, New Orleans was 10 seconds from going to the NFC championship, up 24-23 on Minnesota with the Vikings pinned in their own territory.
Then Stefon Diggs leaped up and over Marcus Williams, reeled in a Case Keenum pass, found daylight, and ran all the way home, 61 yards to a season-saving touchdown. It was the second brutal final-minute loss Morstead had suffered while with the Saints – the first, to San Francisco, came five years before to the day – and it got no easier to stomach. But Morstead stayed and watched.
He knew the rules. He knew that even though the game was over, even though the Vikings were celebrating and the fans were delirious and hornheads all over Minnesota were already booking flights to Philadelphia — even though this was the most empty of all gestures, the Vikings still needed to kick an extra point.
Morstead started to walk back up the tunnel, intending to let the team know, when he spotted the referees coming out of the Saints’ locker room. Their message: sorry, but the game’s not over yet.
Inside the locker room, most of the Saints had already taken off their pads. A few were already draped in towels and headed for the showers. Fullback John Kuhn, who’d tormented Minnesota for so many years while with the Packers, spotted Morstead, still fully dressed.
“Hey Tommy,” Kuhn said. “Get out there.”
So he did. And although he didn’t realize it at the time, Morstead was about to become a genuine NFL folk hero.
Fans unite for players’ charities
By any measure, 2017 was the low-water mark in NFL history for fan-player relations. There had been dustups before – the 1982 strike left both sides bitter, and every time a player signs a huge contract, there are fans who will gripe it’s unfair – but the matter of protests during the national anthem opened up an unprecedented chasm between players and fans. A large segment of the fanbase spat – metaphorically if not literally – at the players’ attempts to demonstrate during the anthem, while the players tried – all too often in vain – to get across the message that they were protesting because they believed in America, not because they hated it.
But amid all the rage and the rhetoric that began with the presidential Twitter account and filtered outward, something kind of amazing happened. The hardest of hardcore NFL fans rose above the hate and the fury, reached across the divide, and turned their fandom into good deeds.
It began on the second day of this year, when Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton found Tyler Boyd for an unlikely game-winning touchdown that knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs and sent the Bills to their first postseason in 17 years. Grateful Bills fans, their hearts spilling over with generosity, donated to the charitable foundations of both Dalton and Boyd. Dalton’s foundation received more than $300,000, much of it in $17 increments, while a tiny athletic association in western Pennsylvania, where Boyd got his start, received over $65,000 in donations from thankful Bills fans.
The next beneficiary of thankful fans’ generosity? Blake Bortles, of all people, who led the Jaguars to an unlikely victory over Pittsburgh. Cincinnati fans, never missing a chance to get petty and revel in their rival’s misery, donated sums in the amount of $45.42 – the winning score – or $7, a mocking shot at the Steelers’ failed attempt for Super Bowl No. 7. Even Todd Gurley’s foundation got some juice, as grateful fantasy owners thanked Gurley for winning them their league championships.
And then came the Minnesota-New Orleans game. Even before the final play, it was already one of the best in recent postseason history, a game that started as a 17-0 Vikings rout and ended with three lead changes in the final three minutes that put New Orleans ahead 24-23. And then, on third-and-10 with 10 seconds remaining, Diggs lined up on his own 39 to run his share of a fling-and-hope play called Buffalo right, 7 Heaven.
What You Give Will Grow
“The Saints and the NFL do a great job of giving players the opportunity to reach out to their communities and realize their passions, whether it’s talking to schools or visiting sick kids,” Morstead told Yahoo Sports recently. “When I signed my 2012 extension, I knew I’d be here awhile, so I made the leap into doing my own charity.”
Morstead is a Saints lifer, entering his 10th year with the club. Only four guys have been in the league longer, and only two – Drew Brees and tackle Jermon Bushrod – have been with New Orleans longer. Morstead decided to leverage his local fame – New Orleans is a small market, and Who Dat Nation is loyal to its own. So he created “What You Give Will Grow,” a charity inspired a line by Frank Gansz, Morstead’s special teams coach at SMU: “What you give will grow, what you keep, you lose.”
Morstead and executive director Dennis Lomonaco initially focused on childhood cancer, looking to help improve the lives of children as well as their families. WYGWG created “Game Day Heroes,” a program that has given dozens of children and their families the chance to get on the sidelines of Saints and Pelicans games or play Xbox with Shaquille O’Neal.
To date, Lomonaco says, the charity has raised over $4 million with a highly efficient 4 percent administrative cost. The charity has also sponsored “Prom Of Hope,” which gives sick children a dance of their own, and worked with former Saint Steve Gleason on “Gleason Gras,” a Mardi Gras-style celebration to raise funds for ALS. Most recently, Morstead did 418 pull-ups in an hour to raise money for the children of former Saints account executive Chris Cordaro, a moment streamed live by the Saints.
But it was that moment back on Jan. 14 that put Morstead, and WYGWG, on the national map.
Paying it forward
“I wasn’t trying to make a statement or anything,” Morstead said of walking back out on the U.S. Bank field that bitter Sunday. But he was still the first Saint onto the line, and he stood there with hands on hips, looking like he’d rather be a billion miles away, as Keenum led the crowd in a “Skol!” chant not 10 feet away.
“We’re gonna take a knee,” Keenum told Morstead, and then did just that, officially ending New Orleans’ misery. The Saints left the field, jumped on a plane, and flew into the offseason. Late that evening, Morstead got a text from Lomonaco with some much-needed good news.
“A lot of donations were showing up,” Morstead said. “I figured it was just Saints fans saying thanks for the season. But then [Lomonaco] said there were a ton of donations coming in from the Minneapolis area. So we knew something was up.”
What they didn’t realize was that a Vikings fan had taken to r/minnesotavikings on Reddit and made an appeal:
“Show your respect for NO Saints Punter Thomas Morstead by donating to his Charity,” wrote user RiffRaff14. “Played with a broken rib yet was one of the 8 players that came out for the point after.” (As it turned out, Morstead hadn’t broken his rib, but the point stood.)
“It was something you could never plan, to go viral like that,” Morstead said. “It was a unique moment, and it won’t ever happen again. It’s a bit of history.” The NFL changed the rule this past offseason requiring an extra point even on a game-winning touchdown, meaning that Morstead’s moment was the last vestige of a strange rule.
As Minnesota-based donations continued to roll in during those first days after the loss, Morstead and Lomonaco called an audible, deciding to give the donations to Children’s Hospital of Minnesota. Morstead even pledged to show up in Minnesota again to present the check if the total passed $100,000:
— Thomas Morstead (@thomasmorstead) January 18, 2018
Fans more than doubled that, and Morstead flew to Minnesota to present the hospital with a check for $221,143.
Of course, there were limits to Morstead’s generosity. “Fans asked me how much it would cost to get him to wear a Vikings jersey,” Lomonaco laughed. “I told him for $2 million, I’d ask him.”
The Vikings’ moment put WYGWG on the national map, and Lomonaco hopes to spin that forward with programs that help children far beyond New Orleans. “It was true to the spirit of our name,” Lomonaco said. “It grew, and it continues to grow.”
“I feel obligated to give back,” Morstead said. “I get paid a lot of money to do a job that isn’t a job. I believe you have a responsibility, when you are capable, to give back to your community.”
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