Chris Canty has performed on some big stages before. The 6’ 7” defensive lineman and nine-year NFL veteran currently of the Baltimore Ravens has had to stand tall in metaphorical trenches before, with thousands of fans rooting for him to either make the biggest play he’s ever made or against him, anticipating failure. He’s faced challenges before, but today the pressure is on. Chants and cheers fill the ears of the player who today has returned to his hometown and on this day looms particularly large in everyone’s eyes. He makes his way towards this afternoon’s stage, all eyes focused on his giant frame.
“Good afternoon, boys and girls!” The words boom through the space that just seconds ago was buzzing with excitement but is now tense with anticipation. Chris doesn’t have to wait long to gauge his audience.
“Good afternoon, Chris Canty!” This is followed by inaudible screams of enthusiasm and the elementary school children filling the packed house rattle their auditorium chairs just as hard as a stadium full of diehard football fans at kickoff.
It isn’t a Sunday afternoon, where Chris usually does his damage, but rather a Tuesday after school at P.S. 43 in the Bronx, NY, the borough where he was born and raised before moving to North Carolina as a teenager. Chris could be stopping through to sign autographs or even just pop his head in the door to tell the students currently gathered, ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade to stay in school. Either way, they would probably be just as happy. But instead, Chris, who dons a red and white striped hat ripped straight from a Dr. Seuss classic sits down on the stage amongst boxes of books donated to the students through his charity, the Chris Canty Foundation. The kids aren’t going to get the books just yet, though. First the NFL player wants to read one of his favorite childhood stories, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
This day will serve as the launch of the foundation’s Reading Buddies literacy program, in which volunteers will visit P.S. 43 once a month to perform reading comprehension drills. It is a small step in improving the community as a whole, similar to all of the foundation’s initiatives which take place throughout the year along the east coast in New York, North and South Carolina, and many cities in between.
“We’ve had leadership conferences, mentoring programs, we’ve had reading programs,” Chris muses about the various tactical plots that him and his team have implemented to reach their target. “We’re really excited about the direction where we’re going. We want to continue to follow that same path and become more integrated into kids and every aspect of their lives, so really we can focus on the total development of our kids in our communities.”
Anyone with perspective knows that to start something (i.e. a job, a football career, a charitable foundation) you’ve got to have a foundation. The Canty family knows the importance of foundation, with Chris and his brothers’ predictably having been formed from their parents. Chris’s father was a member of city and state government in North Carolina and a social worker in New York City and later on a state level as well. His mother is a former parole officer turned ordained United Methodist minister. His grandparents were focused equally on their church community as well as giving back to the community. Discipline, work ethic, morals – the Canty boys needn’t look far for those. And a competitive spirit? That likely came from both parents as well, who each played college sports in addition to his father’s time spent with the Harlem Wizards, an international touring basketball team based on entertainment through competition similar to the Globetrotters from the same borough.
“My parents is where it all started,” he affirms. “They instilled in us at a very early age the importance in being able to give back and serve your community, and so that’s something that we’re excited about and something that’s been a motto to our foundation. We get kids involved in being a service to their community; we want them to view themselves as able individuals, people that have something to give. Even though our young people don’t have a tremendous amount of financial resources, they can always lend a helping hand.”
Chris and his brothers were required to participate in community service growing up, and they were often sent to South Carolina during the summertime to be amongst their grandparents whose home they describe as an unofficial headquarters for all the neighborhood children. They didn’t just witness the reverence to which these community leaders were held, but after playing in the corn and sugarcane fields for two months a year they would come home with an appreciation for culture and humility.
Fast forward to 2005, and as happy as the Canty parents were that their youngest son had made it to the NFL, they were just as eager to see what he would do with his platform off the field. Chris’s brother Joseph recalls a meeting in his parents’ living room during which this very subject was brought up.
They expected great things “not just because of his success in football, but as men” explains Joseph.
As the older brother, Joseph wanted to help Chris satisfy his parents’ request, so he too would sit down with his little bigger brother.
“I challenged Chris,” Joseph recalls. “I said that he was the only athlete in the city of Charlotte that doesn’t have a football camp. He then said ‘Ok Joe, you can run the camp.’”
With no prior experience of managing a charity, Joseph would nonetheless take on the role of President and Chairman of the Chris Canty Foundation, a position he still holds. Simplifying things is usually the best way to begin, and this philosophy played an important part in how Joseph along with the rest of his family went about crafting the foundation’s principles.
“This foundation was a way for us to do simply what we were raised to do every weekend,” Joseph says. “My mother being a minister, on the weekends we had a choice: either we were playing sports, had a job, or we were going to serve the community, and that’s the way this foundation models. Simply, our foundation is a family.”
Based somewhat on Joseph’s challenge and partly on logic, the foundation’s initial event was a football camp. Joseph still refers to the camp as the “building blocks” for what the organization has gone on to do, and just as the Chris Canty Foundation has grown since 2007 so too has the camp itself. From 75 students back then, what has come to be known as the Chris Canty Camp of Champions now features more than 1500 attendees in Charlotte and New York City.
The kids may be there to learn football from an NFL player and his talented friends, but Chris and the foundation have an agenda of their own. They don’t want the youth who visit the camp to leave just as better athletes, but rather as improved all-around individuals.
“I love working with young people and I love football, so being able to teach them life skills, teach them things like discipline, leadership, [and] communication through a game that I love, it’s invaluable for me,” says Chris. “It’s an awesome experience, [and] I’m not sure who looks forward to it more, the kids or me.
Chris and Joseph knew that if they were going to mix in life skills with football skills that both better be top of the line, so the first thing they did was put together as many giveaways and accessories as to make the kids feel as though they were attending an NFL training camp.
Once they had the youngsters’ attention, they hit them with the really good stuff. Speakers are brought in from around the country to teach the value of conflict resolution, communication, self respect, health, dating violence, social media, bullying, and many others as if that list is not exhaustive enough.
“These are things you would never expect at a football camp,” says Joseph. “But it’s a great platform to catch them and get them while you have their attention and make an impact in a positive way.
“I hope and pray that every day when I wake up that’s how I’m leading,” he explains. “That people see we’ve put in the extra effort, that Chris gives just a minute more. Not for an autograph, but for a word of encouragement to a student or even their parents.”
These words aren’t just guidelines on the foundation web site or a motto underneath some banner. True to his family’s theme and the standards on which his charity is built, Chris sticks around after he’s read his book to see the literary inventory get distributed one by one into the hands of his eager audience. Few request autographs and he of course obliges, but he probably signs his name more times when paying for dinner. Rather, as the procession passes by Chris, each student is greeted with a handshake or encouraging words from the man with whom they barely see eye-to-waste.
“I think what sets us apart from a lot of foundations is just our consistent approach,” Chris explains. “We like to be hands on… we really want to be involved and integrated in our communities, [and] get to know the individuals we’re serving. Not just the kids, but the parents, the teachers, everybody that’s involved in enhancing and improving and making an impact in these kids lives.”
Chris was especially hands on just weeks before this day’s event, when he visited the school to go over the book giveaway. He happened to be in the principal’s office when he crossed paths which a young male student who was being disciplined for misbehavior.
“He told us that he didn’t have to learn how to read because he was going to be a wrestler,” Principal Joanna DiLucci remembers of that day. “Chris just told him that even as a football player he has playbooks that he has to read and that reading is important no matter if you’re an athlete or a professional teacher or a doctor, you need to learn how to read.”
Chris’s football year may be over, but Joseph is in midseason form as he stands in the back of the auditorium while his brother recites to the students. He instructs volunteers and chats with parents, and as he will later tell it he is already thinking of how to improve the next literacy event.
“We wanted these kids to have a leg up, we wanted to make sure they had the foundation of reading,” Joseph says. “The reason why we started the foundation was to give kids a sense of hope, a sense of pride, teaching them to be leaders. You have to understand the importance of giving back, knowing that one day that favor will be returned through your community. We don’t serve to get something in return but when you do good things for people that always comes back to you and that’s an important message that a lot of kids need to learn at an early age so they can be good citizens.”
The Chris Canty Foundation is no longer just a football camp. There are community cleanups, food drives, and fundraising golf tournaments. Middle school-aged students are targeted through fitness challenges and for high schoolers there are leadership conferences.
No matter how large the foundation grows, there are two things that will not be changing – Chris and Joseph do not intend to adjust their values, and at the heart of the operation will always be two boys just hoping to make their parents proud while leaving a legacy.
“It’s not enough to say you’ve helped someone, it’s enough to keep going” says Joseph. He guessed that whether or not his parents are proud of their boys is “to be continued,” and that hearing about the impact that the foundation has had on others is the most important thing to them.
“My mother said she always prayed for productive citizens and big healthy boys” Joseph recalls. “Well, she got the big part right. We’re still working on making sure we’re as productive as we can be every day in our lives, and that’s what the Chris Canty Foundation is about.”