How this NFL player went from underdog to champion for kids struggling with literacy.
Growing up in Flint, Michigan, Brandon Carr of the Baltimore Ravens had a deep connection with the teachers in his life.
His fourth and fifth grade teacher, Denise Pitman, made a major impression on him.
“She really turned my education around,” Brandon says. “I was so excited to go to school. She was like my mom — she pushed me.”
Brandon always had a soft spot for teachers because his mom, Kathy, was one for 33 years, and he saw firsthand just how hard they worked.
Kathy’s two sisters were also teachers, and they all wound up in Flint together, so it’s no surprise that education was a regular topic of conversation in the Carr household.
His mom did everything she could to help her boys grow up well-rounded, and that meant prioritizing education, even when football came into play.
Simultaneously Brandon’s dad always stressed the foundations one needs to be a great athlete, and that included stepping outside your comfort zone.
So Brandon started playing football. “I followed in my brother’s footsteps,” he says. “He was the first African-American quarterback in my high school.”
As a smaller guy, Brandon was a bit of an underdog, but it ended up working to his advantage. He played college football for Grand Valley State and was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the fifth round of the 2008 NFL Draft. In 2012, at 25 years old, he was picked up by the Dallas Cowboys on a five-year $50 million contract.
Needless to say, his athletic career was soaring, but Brandon started to feel a tug to do more.
He was itching to give back in a big way but didn’t know how he could be the most useful. Then he remembered his dad’s advice: Go outside your comfort zone.
With that in mind, Brandon signed up to speak publicly about juvenile diabetes.
As a shy guy, he was more than a little nervous at his first speaking engagement. But when he saw all these kids in the auditorium, his nerves melted away. He immediately owned the space, joking and laughing with them. He felt like he could totally be himself.
That’s when he realized he wanted to continue to help instill confidence in kids. And how does one do that?
Well, thanks to voices in his head like his mom and his old teacher Ms. Pitman, it became clear — teach them to read.
“You need to be able to comprehend everything around you to get ahead in this world,” Brandon says. “That starts with reading.”
So, in 2012, Brandon started the Carr Cares Foundation — a nonprofit dedicated to improving children’s literacy.
The idea for the foundation was rather broad at first, but after talking to his mom, aunts, and former teachers, he began to hone in on what schools and students really need. Now they offer programs specifically designed to identify students who are struggling with literacy and give them the tools to succeed.
For example, there’s a peer-to-peer reading program that pairs younger, struggling readers with high school mentors who provide one-on-one tutoring twice a week.
“A big piece of it is the young students build a sense of trust with their mentor and let them into their lives which can be extremely helpful when a student is having problems outside of the classroom,” Brandon explains.
The mentors get a great deal in return as well. Having to be there for younger students every week teaches them accountability. Some even choose to go into education, and in turn, Carr Cares offers them scholarships.
Beyond helping improve kids’ confidence levels, Brandon is doing everything he can to preserve his mom’s legacy.
Kathy passed away in 2014 from her second bout of breast cancer. While he misses her every day, his work in schools lets him feel close to her.
“When I go into these schools, I know she’s with me, and she’s getting the same joy out of seeing these kids,” Brandon says.
And to bring it full circle, he opened three reading centers back in his hometown of Flint in 2015, which provides kids with over 500 books, a fun place to read, and tutors whenever they might need them.
What’s even cooler is that some of Brandon’s former teachers have come back to help run the program.
Thanks to his teachers and loved ones, Brandon’s the confident man he is today, which is why he always comes back to his community.
Thats why he’ll be wearing cleats that broadcast the Carr Cares message for NFL’s initiative My Cause, My Cleats during week 13 of the season.
“We all want to go out and do great things in this world, but [we can’t] forget about the ones coming up behind [us],” Brandon says.
One day, he hopes to take his volunteers and literacy programs and build a school dedicated to bolstering reading skills. It may seem like a massive undertaking, but for the small football player who made it to the top of the NFL by age 25, the sky’s the limit.
Brandon Carr is one of more than 750 NFL players who will lace up for charitable causes as part of the NFL’s My Cause, My Cleats initiative. Starting November 28th, NFL players will reveal their custom cleats, several of which will be auctioned to raise money for the charitable organizations they support. For more information, visit www.nfl.com/mycausemycleats.