NFL Players Battle Bullying in USA Network Doc (Exclusive Video)
The toughest guys in the football league teach kids how to face hard knocks in "NFL Characters Unite," with New York Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich telling THR how the experience impacted him.
The Jonathan Martin scandal proved that even football players can be the victims of bullying, and now some of the toughest guys in the NFL are making a stand for kids facing similar challenges in a new USA Network documentary.
Like the Miami Dolphins offensive tackle, many of them have faced prejudice, bullying and discrimination in their past, and open up about it in NFL Characters Unite, which airs on Friday to kickoff Super Bowl weekend.
Among the players who take on the tough subject head on and teamed up with bullied youths for confidence building drills both on- and off-the-field are Green Bay Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb, New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, New York Jets center Nick Mangold, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman and Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.
New York Giants linebacker and cancer survivor Mark Herzlich talked to The Hollywood Reporter in an interview revealing how he was paired with a 12-year-old cerebral palsy victim, Elijah Williams, who gets bullied because he can't walk properly.
"I had seen the documentary last year with Justin Tuck and I thought it was a great thing to be part of and wanted to get involved," Herzlich tells THR. "I instantly bonded with Elijah because I know what it's like to be different.
"When I was going through cancer I had no hair, no eyebrows... I had no identity. I got used to people pointing at me when I was in college saying, ‘There’s Mark Herzlich, he has cancer.’ No longer was it, ‘There’s Mark Herzlich, the football player,'" explains the burly LB, who was diagnosed with bone cancer at 21 when heading into his senior year at Boston College.
"Suddenly I was a cancer patient and people had pity on me and I didn’t like that.
"I was an All American and expected to be a first round draft pick. I was at the epitome of success at college football, then all of sudden I got knocked down to having no future. The doctors told me I would not be able to walk again, never mind play in the NFL. I was told I had a 10 percent chance of surviving," says Herzlich. "I just had to block it out of my mind, stay focused and say, ‘no matter what they say, I can do this.’
A surprising motivation for Mark was a call out of the blue from Tedy Bruschi, the linebacker for the New England Patriots. "He reached out to me on the night I was told I was cancer-free [Sept. 29, 2009] and told me, ‘Be proud of being a survivor.’ It totally changed my outlook -- I thought it was so cool to talk to Tedy!"
Herzlich is now passing on that "can do" attitude to Elijah, telling him "to accept who you are." However, it is the 12-year-old's wisdom that has really impressed the NFL star, "He told me, 'A lot of people bully me and I want to get angry but I won't. There will always be that mean kid in life and you have to try to be better than that mean kid.'"
Elijah not only had the benefit of getting advice from one of his heroes -- he also got presented with a four-year college scholarship from GM and NFL Characters Unite, which was presented on the Today show on Wednesday. "That is way better than Giants tickets!" joked Herzlich.
When it comes to real life mean kids in the NFL, Herzlich addresses the notorious case of Martin, who alleges that teammate Richie Incognito tormented him with inappropriate texts and threats.
"I believe that bullying shouldn’t happen at all, and I know that what happens in locker rooms – you try to have fun with people but there is a fine line between bonding and bullying," he tells THR. "I think that was a line that was crossed, regardless of whether anyone did anything out of the ordinary, the fact is that Jonathan Martin felt uncomfortable, and anytime anyone feels uncomfortable then that is bullying.
"He said he’d had enough and to stop doing this, but got a lot of backlash from that. It is a hard situation," he adds.
NFL Characters Unite producer Charlie Ebersol went on to tell THR how the annual documentary has used had some of the biggest names in the NFL act as role models for today's youth, which has now exploded on social media.
"Yesterday, we were trending on Twitter (#iAmPerfect -- for our theme song "I Am") three days before the documentary even aired on television -- I couldn’t be more proud of how far we’ve come," he says.
The accompanying Characters Unite PSA campaign will also feature the music of Grammy-winning hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, and their equality theme song, "Same Love."
The Seattle rappers revealed in a statement: "We intended 'Same Love' to help spread a message of love, tolerance and acceptance and we are proud to align ourselves with the Characters Unite movement which shares the same goal. Through the new Characters Unite PSA, we hope to inspire even more people to take part in such an important cause."
Presented by GMC, NFL Characters Unite airs Friday, Jan. 31 at 7 p.m. on USA Network.