The Founder

Draft Goes Beyond Game to Contribute

By Bryan Burwell

On this perfect Saturday morning, there isn't a cloud in the sky. There's a sweet, gentle breeze in the air, and somewhere in this big and complicated world, there are plenty of people worried about a million other things like wars and politics, soaring gas prices and the Cardinals' bullpen woes.

But here we are at Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club on the grounds of old Sportsman's Park, and we've found a man who has stopped worrying about the way things are and instead is devoting himself to the way things should be. Chris Draft is moving like a man who thinks he's running out of time, darting over here, dashing over there, covering ground and shouting to the heavens like a Southern preacher and a hyped-up football coach.

"Ooooooooh man!" he screams. "Do THAT again! PUL-EEEZE DO THAT AGAIN!!"

He grabs a youngster around his shoulders and laughs at the sight of a pre-teen, built like a low-riding SUV, hitting a tackling dummy with the impact of a tank. They celebrate together, gleefully inspecting the bobbing tackling dummy as if it were a prized trophy.

If you think this is another predictable football camp by another ordinary NFL player, you don't know Chris Draft. There is nothing predictable or ordinary about him. The Rams linebacker showed up in St. Louis last year intent on achieving one goal. He wanted to change the world. Not the football world.

He wanted to change the world world.

"When we first signed him, I was out of town and received a voice mail from him asking me to return his phone call," said Rams director of corporate communications Molly Higgins. "Having not yet met him, I wasn't sure what he could be calling about, but I returned the call and was engaged in a 45-minute conversation about the importance of character education and how he was going to take his message to the students of St. Louis. With Chris, it's not just lip service. What he says, he does, and more."

Belinda Sye has known Draft for more than a decade. She was a college classmate at Stanford and now helps run his charitable organization, the Chris Draft Family Foundation, and she was there when the dream began. "When we were in college, we used to sit around and talk about what it would be like if he became a pro athlete," Sye said. "He'd always ask me, 'What would happen if we did projects that really found a way to help improve things (in the community)?'

"A lot of folks talk about changing the world. Few actually get around to doing it. Draft is a hell of a talker. But he's a much better doer. He is standing in the middle of a gymnasium full of kids and parents, teammates and coaches and he's preaching to the room. "When people say everything in St. Louis is bad, I want you to say, 'No, it's not. Look at me,''' Draft says.

I've heard this speech before. He has said it to kids in high school and elementary school. He has told it to curious parents and public school administrators. He has delivered it in inner-city parks and fancy downtown hotel ballrooms, driven to the state house to urge politicians to help, held meetings with NFL executives, coaxed teammates and local business leaders to lend a hand.

But he's not waiting for anyone to help. They will have to catch up to him. He has already helped create scholarships for St. Louis high school kids and sparked renewed interest with corporate sponsorship for debate competitions in the city high schools. He has encouraged a rough-and-tumble, inner-city neighborhood to clean up and maintain a neighborhood park. And now the pied piper is on the move again, stressing health, fitness and athletic and academic achievement to kids and their parents on this flawless spring day.

The music was blasting outside, pumped up to window-rattling volume on the Herbert Hoover football field. There are young boys in T-shirts with words like "Respect," "Self-Discipline," "Confidence" and "Pride" on them zig-zagging between tackling dummies and reaching out for spiraling footballs tossed at them from large pro football players.

One moment you see Draft on the field. A few minutes later, he is moving from classroom to classroom. There are boys and girls taking yoga lessons, and parents taking cooking lessons from a health-oriented chef who is trying to tell them how to reduce the fat, salt and sugar in their family's diet.

Rams assistant coaches are involved in a parent-coach roundtable, discussing issues that straddle their worlds as coaches, leaders and parents. Rams players and cheerleaders are sitting down and having no-nonsense "guy talk" and "girl talk" conversations with 8- and 12-year-old kids.

I can honestly say I've never seen a sports camp like this. It wasn't about football. It was about life. It was about finding a way to change this city from a frustrating place full of roadblocks and emotional obstacles.

On this day, the message keeps going. The camp has ended, and the kids are gone. But there are stacks of donated box lunches from the Panera Bread Company left over from the camp. A few minutes later, those boxes are stuffed in bags and being stacked in cars and SUVs and Draft leads them on a caravan to an inner-city park to distribute them to more kids.

"Gotta go, my man," he says with a wink and a smile. "Got more work to do."