The Founder

Draft is a One-Man Community Relations Machine

Rams Linebacker Never Stops Thinking of Ways to Help St. Louis Be a Better Place

by Howard Balzer

CHRIS DRAFT was in his first season as an NFL player when he had an experience he remembers to this day. For a guy who has continually done countless things in the communities he’s lived during a 10-year career, it’s significant that he recalls one kid he helped with some words and a positive attitude.

As a sixth-round pick of the Bears in 1998, Draft was teaching in an after-school program (don’t be surprised; he taught special ed kids when he was in high school).

Recalls Draft, “There was a kid who was behind. They told me he was in danger of failing that grade. I sat down with him and started talking to him, and he was giving me every excuse in the book. I shot them all down. I told him to get his books, paper, pencils because I’m going to be here. I told him I’m going to help you, but the only way you will get better is if you do the work yourself.

“In two weeks after they were talking about him failing, now he was ahead. I look at that and say all we have to do is really connect with kids. If we find out they’re struggling, just be there to help them, to motivate them, to keep on pushing forward. If they do, there’s not a lot of things they can’t do.”

To listen to Chris Draft is to be emboldened, to be inspired. His approach is simple, yet obvious. His goal is clear: Make wherever he is a better place to be.

“Being part of a team is where community relations comes from,” he says. “Part of being on a team is that you can do things for your teammates so they can do things better. Wherever I’m at, that’s my team. So when I’m in St. Louis, that’s my team.”

Evan Ardoin is the Rams’ community outreach coordinator, and he is constantly amazed by what Draft is able to accomplish and the heart he puts into it.

Said Ardoin, “He took ownership of St. Louis as his own city as soon as he got here. Every city he’s played in has become a second home to him. He can really put together an excellent community opportunity on his own and take it and run with it.”

A lot of athletes do great things in their communities, but most of the time it happens when they are approached. Draft always thinks outside the box and comes up with ideas on his own.

Said Molly Higgins, the Rams’ director/corporate communications, “He is truly one of a kind. It seems like every day he’s down here with a new idea. He keeps up with current events. He wants to keep everything relevant, while leveraging his power as a professional athlete to bring about good for not only the organization, but the whole community. His heart is in the right place; he’s always thinking about what’s next, what’s next. We’re a small staff and he really has us running.”

Higgins pauses and says, only half jokingly, “Luckily, we have only one Chris Draft.”

“It’s gotten to the point now, where we get specific requests for him,” Higgins says. “They know it’s not going to be just an appearance he’s making. It’s an investment. He’s a special individual. Each staff meeting we have the Draft community update and discuss the social issue he’s tackling that day.”

So, where does this hell-bent aggressiveness to do good come from? Draft says it’s simple.
“My parents set the tone for me very early in just the way they went about everything they did,” he said. “They were always the coach of the team, the team mom. They did it in a way so they would have the opportunity to touch a lot of kid’s and people’s lives just by being a part of what was going on.

“They showed their commitment to me and my brother by showing we’re going to be there and being a part of what you’re doing, and watching to make sure to see what they were teaching us was in line with what we’re thinking. It wasn’t only about helping us, it was also helping others.”

Of course, Tony and Rose Draft take being there to another level. They have rarely missed any of the 129 games he’s played in the NFL. Last season, his first in St. Louis, they missed just one.

“That’s always been a high priority for them,” he said. “They made sure that if they had the time or could make the time, they’d be there.”

Of course, there’s one other advantage to their presence. “When we’re on the road, it’s always said that everyone’s against us,” Draft said. “Well, I know there’s at least two for us.”

Knowing how his parents were always /there for him helps Draft understand that not everyone can devote the time that he does to community work.

He said, “I’m not married. I don’t have kids yet, so I have the opportunity to do things that guys who are married don’t because they have to take care of their family first.”

It’s always family first with Chris Draft, and his community is his family.

He said, “It’s about building a community. If you have kids, make sure they have the best role models around them to make that community better. When you can build a community to make it more positive, it spreads out for everyone.

“Everything doesn’t have to be a big thing. The impact you make is not always so obvious. You just try to make a small little change in their mindset and incorporate it. Just a small little change; that’s all we have to do. You have to respond to what’s going on and ask what do they need, what do we need to feel better about ourselves. What do we need to improve ourselves. Whatever that is, I’m looking for it to try to give it to them.”

Ardoin, who Higgins refers to as Draft’s “wingman” because he goes almost everywhere Draft goes, calls him “the de-facto mayor of St. Louis.” Said Ardoin, “When he shows up somewhere, everyone knows about his community efforts. Folks identify with that. I’m very proud being with him in the community and what he represents. I take it as a great learning experience to see how he operates in the community.

“He just cares about people, cares about the community and giving people the opportunity to improve their own lives.”

Ardoin talks about the “Draft Day” event that took place at the Herbert Hoover Boys Club last May. It brought together almost 400 youths and their parents for fitness events and sessions on nutrition.

Said Ardoin, “To be able to bring both parents and kids together facilitates real change in their lives as it was individually stressed about proper nutrition, daily activity and doing their best in school. It was about taking ownership of their community. I was amazed at how people gravitated toward that message.”

Said Draft, “What we wanted to be able to do was create the optimum learning environment. If we talked about nutrition without involving the parents, the parents are the ones that buy the groceries. Their parents are the ones that would be taking them to McDonald’s because they’re the ones driving. I felt like to be able to truly educate, we have to involve the parents in the process. We’re really focusing on the fact that the kids have choices, and they can help in that process, but really empowering the parents with the kids is the key to making a difference.”

Another example was The Great Debaters day. There was an advance screening of the Denzel Washington film late in the 2007 season because Washington’s son, J.D., was on the practice squad.

Said Draft, “After watching the movie I was just like ‘oh my goodness, this is amazing. I have to share this with someone.’ The great thing about seeing a movie early is that you see it before everybody, but the problem with that is that you can’t really discuss it with anybody.”

So it was that about 300 kids from the city schools, his “Draft Picks,” watched the movie last January at the Chase Park Plaza with a discussion to follow. Said Draft, “What we wanted to do was be able to watch it together, discuss it together and really start to create that conversation that will start to make St. Louis better.”

Draft wanted administrators and teachers to “pick their leaders, the ones that are these well-rounded kids that participate in athletics, that are taking care of their grades and are leading at that school. We wanted to have something that would say thank you for what you have done, and inspire you to do more.”

Said Higgins, “Most people would watch a movie, and even if they were inspired, nothing much would happen. Chris saw the movie, had an idea and it ends with changing young lives, which is really incredible.”

Said an inspired Ardoin, “You saw public school students in there and you were able to touch and feel the potential of the kids in that room as they stood with microphones speaking their mind, taking the message from the film and applying it to their own lives. That was impressive to see.”

There have been numerous awards Draft has won for his community work, but even there, he sees a greater good. “It’s definitely great being able to be recognized for the work you’re doing,” he said, “but what it does is brings awareness to what you’re doing and gives us a chance to make more of an impact going forward.”

For Chris Draft, it is about more than just lending his name to a charity. He immerses himself in whatever he does, including the St. Louis chapter of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Draft’s first days of training camp with the Rams were affected by his own asthma issues.

Said Dan Cierpiot, executive director of the chapter here, “We devote our work to the ideal of a life without limits, and Chris Draft is the perfect example of such a life. Chris is an amazing inspiration and role model for children afflicted with asthma and allergies. Rather than allow his asthma to limit his successes, Chris has worked hard to manage his asthma and has refused to let it stop him. He truly inspires our children to ‘live a life without limits.’ ”

So, what would life be like here without Chris Draft? After all, this is his 11th season and he turned 32 in January. He’s been here only 17 months, but it feels like a lifetime.

Said Higgins, “There will definitely be a void. But he is also a great locker-room ambassador with other players and we have to cultivate new relationships and continue to reach out to new guys and make sure there will be someone when the time comes to step into those shoes.”

Ardoin notes that Draft stays active in the cities he has been, and he replicated the Great Debaters program in other cities.

He said, “I would say that whether Chris Draft is physically here or not, you will feel his presence. You will feel a draft.”

Said Higgins, “Forever.”

Howard Balzer is the host of Pro Football Sunday on 590 The Fan KFNS and the Rams and NFL writer for