As the father of a young son just starting to play sports, The Charlie Sanders Foundation and its charitable work hits close to home.
There are many terrific foundations sponsored by the Detroit Lions organization, its players and coaches, but Sanders’ “Have a Heart Save a Life” initiative is a cause every parent can, and should, get behind.
The whole purpose of The Charlie Sanders Foundation is to raise awareness and money for heart check programs for student athletes.
“I had a great career and a great life,” the Hall of Fame tight end told me before his 3rd Annual Charlie Sanders Foundation Charity Gold Outing at Knollwood Country Club in West Bloomfield Monday afternoon. “I realized that if I drop dead today, I’ve been blessed.
“The whole idea (of the foundation) stemmed from Wes Leonard, the fact that I was sitting there and watching it, and all the sudden the greatest moment in a guys life and he doesn’t get to relish in it. Something just hit me. That’s not right.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics estimated that 2,000 people under the age of 25 die from sudden cardiac arrest in the U.S. every year.
Leonard, a 16-year-old star athlete from Fennville, was one of those statistics back in 2011.
Seconds after sinking a game winning shot that handed Fennville High a perfect 20-0 season, Leonard collapsed on the court and died of a previously undiagnosed heart condition.
The Charlie Sanders Foundation has made it its mission to raise awareness and help pay for heart screenings for young athletes and to even try and change legislation to make electrocardiograms, or E.K.G., part of the physical process for youths wanting to play sports.
The current physical examination every athlete has to undergo and pass to play sports involves listening to the heart, checking blood pressure and reviewing family medical history, but no other testing is done from a heart standpoint unless an issue is raised.
Sanders wants that to change.
Concussions are receiving a lot of attention nowadays, especially in the football community, and deservedly so, but a young athlete dies from a cardiac incident once every three days in the United States.
“There were a lot of kids dying that we don’t hear about,” Sanders said. “To a lot of people that’s not important, but if you add it up, that’s a lot of kids.
“In reality, you want a kid to go out and do what they do naturally, which is play. From a parental standpoint, it’s our responsibility to make sure they’re healthy enough to play.
“If you have a concussion, the aftereffects from a concussion mean that you live long enough to have aftereffects. But you don’t live past this.”
The Leonard family has lived through that awful truth, which is why Jocelyn Leonard, Wes Leonard’s mother, was on hand lending her support to Sanders’ charity raising efforts on Monday.
“Well, with Charlie Sanders’ reputation, he can reach people that we could never reach,” said Jocelyn, who started the Wes Leonard Heart Team shortly after her son’s death.
“Every person we’ve met here has said, 'We’ve kept you in our prayers and we’re so happy to be here.’ So many people have come on their own dime. People have spent money to come here to make an effort and all this money is going to go to screenings. We place AED’s (Automatic External Defibrilators) in schools and it all works together for the same cause.”
Lions head coach Jim Caldwell, quarterback Mathew Stafford and receiver
“When I had an opportunity to come here, Charlie actually stopped by my office and told me about it,” Caldwell said. “It was actually in conjunction with a young person who had passed away in Jackson about the time I arrived.
“He was kind of telling me about his foundation and what they were trying to do, so I sat and visited with him for quite some time. It’s a worthy cause.”
Sanders has always had a passion for football as one of the greatest tight ends to play the game and currently as the Lions assistant director of pro personnel, but he's passionate about the work this foundation does, too, and it's easy to get behind it's cause as parent.