MAXWELL:  Heroes in _ and out of _ the game

10/3/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Americans treat their athletes as both heroes and scoundrels, depending on the juiciest controversy or the hottest trend of the season.

Away from the bright lights of the arena and without fanfare, however, most athletes lead otherwise normal lives. Then, we have that rare handful who are driven to serve other people. These jocks use their time, fortunes and personality to single-handedly do what government and charities fail to do.

The Atlanta Hawks’ Dikembe Mutombo’s intimidating 7-foot-2 frame is matched only by the size of the center’s generosity. A native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire, the 33-year-old National Basketball Association star has returned home to save lives.

Last year, Mutombo’s mother, Marie Biamba, died in her house at age 63, just a few hours after speaking to her son on the telephone. She probably would be alive today, officials said, if she could have gotten to a hospital in the faraway capital city of Kinshasa. “No hospital has been built (in the Republic of the Congo) in 39 years,” Mutombo told USA Weekend. “(People) go home and wait for death to come.”

The few hospitals in the country lack supplies, even medicine and beds. To change these conditions, Mutombo established the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation. “I organized it as a vehicle for me to promote my humanitarian interests through international, national and local community fund-raising activities for the betterment of the underprivileged in the U.S. and in my homeland,” he said. “The primary three-fold mission of the foundation is to improve the health, education and quality of life for the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

These are not idle words. Traveling in his native country, he is using his personal wealth to build a $44-million hospital. On arriving in Kinshasa, he anted up a $3-million check to jump-start construction of the hospital and the creation of an infrastructure. In addition to money, USA Weekend reports, Mutombo brought along donated medical supplies and beds for the struggling hospitals.

Mutombo’s early childhood dream was to practice medicine and find ways to improve the public health care system in his homeland. Obviously, he has not forgotten that dream. “Because of the NBA,” he told USA Weekend, “I’ve got a lot of doors open to me. So I have to let a lot of people in.”

Like Mutombo, Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Warrick Dunn is literally opening doors and letting a lot of people in.

Dunn, in his third year with the National Football League franchise, established “Homes for the Holiday.” Each Christmas season, the former Florida State University superstar gives a select group of single mothers in the Tampa Bay area between $5,000 and $6,000 as down payments on homes. NationsBank makes the mortgage loans, and the city of Tampa guarantees them for the first five years.

Area businesses, such as supermarkets, deparment stores and furniture outlets, stock the homes with their products, which they give to the new homeowners or sell at reduced prices. Last year, the homes ranged from $70,000 to $90,000. Participating single moms must qualify for the loan and promise to make the mortgage payments. Dunn alone decides who gets a home for the holiday.

“It’s always tough (selecting the participants) because you can’t reach everybody,” Dunn told the St. Petersburg Times. “You don’t want people to think you don’t care.”

No one doubts Dunn’s capacity to care. He is gearing up to select the lucky women who will receive homes for 1999. He, too, was reared by a single mother _ a Baton Rouge, La., police officer killed in the line of duty.

In Chicago, where the NFL’s Bears rule during the winter, an unlikely intellectual reads Tolstoy for inspiration and gives another kind of gift: books and knowledge.

A few years ago, Chicago Bears defensive lineman Jim Flanigan established the James Flanigan Foundation, along with its main program called Literacy for Life. To Flanigan, who whacks quarterbacks around as if they were rag dolls, literacy is more than being able to read. Literacy, he writes on the foundation’s Web site, “is the knowledge that reading can transform a life by filling it with greater understanding, even wisdom. Literacy transcends reading as a practical matter; it is the ability and the desire to pursue reading as a means to enriching both mind and spirit. Literacy for Life is the embodiment of the idea that literacy cultivates ability and improvement, and ultimately, a better life.”

The foundation focuses on children and their parents, promoting enthusiasm for reading. To this end, Flanigan spends much of his time on the road giving away books and reading to children. “From the time I was a young child, my parents read to me and stimulated an interest in books, learning and intellectual development,” he said. “I would like to use my good fortune to bring the joy of reading to others.”

Through Mission 99 _ 99 being his jersey number _ he donates 99 books every week of the football season to a needy school, children’s hospital or children’s program. The foundation collaborates with corporate sponsors who match his donation. This year, the matching contribution will total 20,000 volumes. According to USA Weekend, Flanigan also intends to distribute a half-million books to children of low-income families in the Midwest.

An avid reader, Flanigan grew up in well-to-do Sturgeon Bay, Wis., was valedictorian of Southern Door High School and graduated from Notre Dame in 1994. How easily he could have retreated into the good life and thought only of himself and his family. But he did not.

Mutombo, Dunn and Flanigan represent the very best in sports. Their selflessness should serve as an example for other athletes who earn salaries the rest of us can only dream of.