INDIANAPOLIS — The first time Steve Weatherford rolled through the New York Giants locker room with a laundry cart, collecting castoff tennis shoes and cleats, he made sure to tell teammates he wasn’t selling their stuff on eBay.
Quite the contrary.
“Every time he asks, I give him a pair,” Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks said. “I knew it was for a good deed because he had a big bucket full.”
While the rest of the world knows Weatherford for his, how to put it delicately, “exuberant” reaction after the Giants beat the San Francisco 49ers to advance to Sunday’s Super Bowl, the people in his struggling hometown of Terre Haute, Ind., know him for his unending generosity. He has donated money for groceries, and helped raise funds to pay off one family’s electric bill. He has sent countless autographed items to be auctioned off for the local United Way and Boys Club.
And those shoes he collects? He ships them back to be handed out to school kids in Terre Haute. The latest care package arrived Wednesday, two boxes filled with shoes from Nicks, Justin Tuck and the other Giants.
Few Super Bowl souvenirs could be better.
“I always thought he’d be a successful person because of his drive and ambition. I knew he was a good athlete,” said Danny Tanoos, the superintendent of the Vigo County School Corp. “I wasn’t anticipating that he would be so caring about the underprivileged and underserved of our community.
“He just never has said no.”
Terre Haute seems an odd candidate for an impoverished city. Located about 70 miles west of Indianapolis, it is home to both the prestigious Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and Indiana State University, Larry Bird’s alma mater.
But 28 percent of its population was below the poverty line in 2009, double the state average. Fifteen percent were below 50 percent of the poverty line, more than double the state average. Of the 16,000 students in the Vigo County district, Tanoos said 54 percent are on fee-reduced lunches.
And every Friday, school officials pack up backpacks of food to send home so students won’t go hungry over the weekend.
“There’s a lot of people in need and there’s a lot of good people that support me there, and they were influential in my sports career and my upbringing,” said Weatherford, whose parents still live in Terre Haute. “To be able to have the opportunity, to be put in the position to be able to give back so generously, is a no-brainer for me.”
Plenty of athletes do charitable work, giving of both their time and money. Former running back Warrick Dunn has provided more than 100 single parents in Atlanta, Tampa, Baton Rouge, La.; and Tallahassee, Fla., with homes, and Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow raises money for the orphanage his father works for in the Philippines.
But there is something about Weatherford’s generosity that somehow seems more personal.
“You know a lot of people give back and he’s not one to seek out the spotlight for doing so. But it’s special,” Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes said.
One of the perks of being an NFL player is an endless supply of high-end tennis shoes and cleats. Most players wear them for only a short time, barely long enough for them to get scuffed or scratched.
What some may see as a waste, Weatherford saw as an opportunity.
“It’s not like we wear cheap, trashy cleats. These are $150 a pair, and guys will wear them three times and throw them out,” he said. “So you just kind of dust them off and send them back home.”
Once they found out what Weatherford was doing, his teammates were more than willing to pitch in. Nicks says he donates “a pair of cleats and a pair of Jordans” whenever Weatherford roams through the locker room with his cart, while others drop them off on their own.
Weatherford estimates he’s collected 500 pairs of shoes over the last three seasons, making a shipment about once a month.
“Obviously it’s important to me because I go through the trouble of asking everybody, ‘Hey do you want those?’ But everybody knows why I do it,” he said. “To be able to help so many children and so many people in need, it only costs me 20 minutes out of my day maybe once a month during the football season. It’s important, and I know those people really appreciate it.”
Tanoos, who has known Weatherford since he was in high school and has become one of the Giant’s closest friends, is in charge of distributing the goodies. He spreads them around the district’s three high schools, and the kids are ecstatic to have a pair of shoes that once belonged to Nicks or Tuck or another NFL star.
“Their eyes become the size of silver dollars,” Tanoos said. “They wear them with such pride because many of these kids, the best shoes they’re wearing are the ones Steve sends them.”
Weatherford also sends Tanoos memorabilia signed by him and his teammates that can be auctioned off for local charities. A ball signed by Giants quarterback Eli Manning fetched $825 at an auction to benefit the United Way earlier this week, in fact, while one signed by Weatherford brought in $650.
Terre Haute residents have tried to find ways to thank Weatherford. His refrigerator is covered with hand-drawn pictures, “Go Giants!” written in crayon. When the Giants made the Super Bowl, an electronic billboard began flashing a congratulatory message. Somehow, though, it never seems like enough.
So when Weatherford called Tanoos late Monday night and said he was going to come home for a few hours Tuesday, the city responded with an impromptu pep rally. Weatherford, Tynes and long snapper Zak DeOssie got a police escort, and they walked into the Terre Haute North gym to find more than 2,000 people waiting.
“I tell you what, the hair stood up on the back of my neck,” Tynes said.
“I told the kids at the school, ‘Steve’s a good punter but he’s an even better father and husband,’ so I think that says it all,” Tynes said. “He’s taking care of Terre Haute and you know what? He’s a stand-up guy. They should be very proud of him.”