In the winter of 2013, Chris Long wanted to do something different.
Then with the St. Louis Rams, the star defensive end was bored of just playing football and training during the offseason. He didn’t think he traveled enough and wanted to see more of the world. On a whim, he went to Tanzania with teammate James Hall and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in the continent of Africa.
It was supposed to be just for fun. Instead, it became a life-changing experience.
What Long saw on his journey became the basis for Waterboys: the signature initiative through The Chris Long Foundation dedicated to providing clean water to impoverished communities in East Africa. For this and his several charitable efforts at home and abroad, Long has been named the Eagles’ nominee for the 2018 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award presented by Nationwide.
“I’ve just had 11 years of a great platform and football has given me a lot,” says Long, a 2008 second overall pick of the Rams. “I’ve tried to be really efficient with my time and energy and do as much as I can while I’m a player because all this stuff, it’s not available to you when you’re done. … I’m just trying to squeeze out all the potential that I can.”
Long’s work began in Tanzania with a determination to befriend the residents in the country and learn about their culture. He did not want to be the typical tourist, as he saw it, who comes to climb or go on safari and gives nothing back.
In the time he spent in the country, Long witnessed poverty on a scale he’d never seen before. But at the same time, through experiencing the mountain with locals and meeting families in villages, he got to know a community of people who he wanted to help.
“I went for the climb, but when I left, my greater reflections were about the need to chip in and do something good in a place that gave me a really beautiful, life-changing experience,” Long says.
It was on that first trip that Long, shortly after climbing Kili with Hall, would have a significant chance meeting at a bar.
There, he ran into sports broadcaster Joe Buck and Doug Pitt, the brother of actor Brad Pitt who serves as both the Goodwill Ambassador to Tanzania as well as a board member for WorldServe International. Buck and Pitt were set to go on a water project the next day. Although Long could not go with them, he kept the valuable contacts.
When Long returned to the states, he identified clean water as a tangible way he could make a difference. He knew that if he wanted to change anything – healthcare, education, poverty – it all began with water.
So, in 2015, Long launched Waterboys with the backing of WorldServe. The initiative funded sustainable, deep-water wells run by solar panels that could serve 7,500 people. Instead of walking tens of miles each day to fill up heavy jugs of dirty water, these towns now had their own source of clean water.
“For me, it was like, this is efficient, this is a game-changer,” Long says. “I want to change the world in a positive way and in a measurable way.”
Long saw firsthand the difference clean water made.
He vividly remembers visiting a primary school of 2,300 students just 10 minutes from the hotel he stayed in during his visit to Arusha. Kids traveled to a disease-ridden, “frankly disgusting” creek to fetch drinking and bathing water for the day. It was a struggle to attain a basic human need taken for granted in the United States.
With clean water, Long wasn’t just saving lives and solving health issues. Water improved agriculture, education, and promoted the rights of women and young girls who were often tasked with retrieving water each day.
“When you see a community that does and does not have water in the same couple days, which we try to bring people to when we bring them over so they can see the contrast, you realize how comprehensive an effect clean water makes on a community,” Long says. “It’s not just water to drink. It’s everything.”
The initial goal of Waterboys was to build 32 wells for 32 NFL teams. With the help of fan support and Long’s NFL peers utilizing their platforms and serving as their teams’ “waterboy,” that goal was surpassed in February 2018 – the week of the Eagles’ Super Bowl win.
Long now wants to think in terms of people instead of wells. Waterboys has served more than 200,000 people in East Africa and the new goal is to surpass one million.
“The way to relay the scale of the wells is to talk about the people,” Long says. “If not for these implemented solutions, these people might not be around.”
Waterboys has expanded across other sports as well. Long connected with NBA star and fellow University of Virginia alumnus Malcolm Brogdon who began Hoops2O, a branch of Waterboys involving a “starting five” of dedicated NBA players.
While he has begun something special abroad, Long has also worked to tackle problems back home. Last year, Long donated each of his 16 game checks to fund educational programs in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia as well as the three communities in which he played professionally: St. Louis, Boston, and Philadelphia.
Long’s generosity caught the eye of former President Barack Obama, who tweeted about his donation last December as part of three stories from 2017 that represent “what’s best about America.” In January, The Chris Long Foundation teamed up with former First Lady Michelle Obama to help low-income students apply for college and get the financial aid they need.
This season, teaming up with United Way and Read by 4th, Long donated another quarter of his salary toward his First Quarter for Literacy initiative to fund books and literary resources to young readers in underserved areas of Philadelphia.
Long plans to match any donation from opposing players in the NFL up to $25,000 and invites Eagles fans to team up with contributions and by purchasing and donating books.
“If I think the most efficient way to make a difference in the third world is clean water, we identified education as being the most efficient way to change America,” Long says. “It’s not just how well you’ll do in school but it’s how life is going to treat you.”
The hardest thing Long does, including football, is the annual trip to accomplish the objective that kick-started his work abroad: climbing Kili. Long does the six-day, 19,341-foot climb to raise awareness for Waterboys alongside retired NFL players and wounded veterans. It’s a challenging and rewarding endeavor requiring camaraderie and teamwork that he hopes to continue when his football days are over.
And the climb is just a part of The Chris Long Foundation’s various events and contributions geared toward empowering and supporting military members and their families. Military appreciation has been one of the most consistent pillars since the foundation’s inception.
“There are people in our community that sacrifice greatly for our country,” Long says. “I think it’s our duty to draw attention to them because we often get lifted up as if we’re role models or heroes and I don’t think we are. I think we have great talents and we can use them how we please, but I think it’s our duty to draw attention to these men and women and support them.”
During the season, Long focuses on his play on the field. And it shows.
Long recorded his ninth-career multi-sack game in the Eagles’ Week 8 win over the Jaguars in London and had a forced fumble in the Eagles’ Opening Night win over the Falcons. In 2017, his strip-sack of Jared Goff in Week 14 and his hit on Case Keenum in the NFC Championship Game that led to a pick-six were season-changing plays.
Long registered a career-high four forced fumbles last season and finished second in the NFL with four strip-sacks. In the playoffs, he led the Eagles with 13 combined quarterback hits and pressures as he became one of only four players in NFL history to win back-to-back Super Bowls with different teams.
But the offseason gives Long a chance to work on the front lines of his foundation and truly see the impact he makes. To him, that’s the most rewarding part.
“To interact with people, that’s what makes it whole as an experience,” Long says. “It’s one thing to give money but I don’t want to be that guy that just gives money and I don’t have anything behind it.”
Long also saw the result of fans interacting with him to make a change. Long said he only went public about his salary donation to raise awareness for his initiatives and invite fans to donate with him.
Through his Pledge 10 for Tomorrow campaign, fans came through and helped double his investment by raising $1.3 million. Fans are encouraged now to support Long on Twitter by using “#WPMOYChallengeLong” in posts until January 13. The nominee with the most tweets will receive a $25,000 contribution to a charity of his choice.
That awareness and support are what is exciting about this year’s nomination. Long has never been one to crave personal accolades. But a Walter Payton Man of the Year Award would only help him with what he wants to accomplish.
“Walter Payton is a legend, one of those players that’s revered by everyone he played with and fans alike, and I know that award has meant a lot to a lot of guys,” Long says. “But I think the best part about it is the attention that it would bring to the people that need help.
“It would give our foundation and some of the things we’re trying to do more momentum because, at the end of the day, I’m all about trying to make more of a change.”
– Article written by Graham Foley