This week, the San Francisco 49ers announced that defensive lineman Arik Armstead is their 2020 nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Each year, the award is given to “a player demonstrating outstanding community service activities off the field, as well as excellence on the field.”
“…[W]ith regards to Arik’s personality, his character, he is such a genuine human being,” said 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. “If you just see him in person, you just see this mountain of a man, but what you will never understand unless you speak to him, is just how thoughtful and how calculated and how smart the man is. He’s so much more than just a football player, especially off the field. The guy’s just got a fantastic mind and he’s very bright, so well deserving of the nominee that he did receive…”
The Boy From Sacramento Who Changed the World
For his storied impact in the community & embodying what it means to be #FTTB, we are proud to recognize @arikarmstead as the 49ers 2020 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nominee presented by @Nationwide 👏#WPMOYChallenge Armstead pic.twitter.com/TBMepJEokL
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) December 10, 2020
For Armstead, who has been a force in the community since being drafted in 2015, the nomination means a great deal.
“…I’m a person that just does, does, does, and I don’t really sit back and think about really what I have done or what I have accomplished, I just try to find ways to do more,” Armstead said. “…I get a small chance to be honored and humbled and think about some of the things that I’ve done in the past. Just kind of how my brain works. I’m always thinking about how I can do more and how I can be better. So in that moment, it’s really cool to kind of sit back and thinking about some of the things I’ve done and some of the people I’ve helped and the people who have helped me along the way accomplish those things and help others. So that was pretty amazing.”
Armstead’s passion is education and education equality, especially in his hometown of Sacramento, which is why he started the Armstead Academic Project. Through the foundation, Armstead has raised over $200,000 for the community. In addition, during the coronavirus pandemic, Armstead donated $50,000 to make sure students of all backgrounds had access to digital learning, while delivering 350 Chromebooks with a year of pre-paid internet and education kits to families through Sacramento’s Mercy Housing.
“…Out in the community, I don’t get to see a lot of it, but I hear about it,” said 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. “I know Arik’s involved in that stuff all the time. I know he has a big reading program, I think, in Sacramento. I know California is very important to him, being from Sacramento and I think all the local stuff that he does in our area. I know even down here, living in this hotel and not being able to do that stuff, I think he’s Zooming and reading books to schools on Mondays and Tuesdays from Zoom. So, Arik’s a really good dude, a really good player and glad he’s on our team.”
The reading program Shanahan is referring to is Storytime with Arik Armstead, which was launched in 2020. Armstead reads with first-to-fourth grade students on Zoom to promote literacy. The program has been in 21 virtual classrooms, including one in Qatar, as over 440 students have been involved.
“…[C]hildren who are not reading proficiently by fourth grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school on time, and that will hinder their chances of living a happy, healthy and productive life,” Armstead said. “Once I learned that, that really peaked my passion for trying to ensure that kids have the opportunity to get a good education. And also that in getting a good education, they’ll have an opportunity at life. I didn’t like the fact that kids’ lives were being determined at such a young age. Fourth grade is such a young time in kids’ lives, and you can have a big impact early on and change that trajectory of where they’re headed in their future.”
Usually during the holidays, Armstead visits UC Davis Hospital to spend time with children who are hospitalized, while he has also donated $20,000 in toys for the children there.
Due to COVID, Armstead, generally, has not been able to be in the community in person, which is different, but he’s still able to connect.
“It’s actually been pretty cool,” Armstead said. “I feel like virtually…I’ve been able to do a lot more than I would have been able to, if I had to physically be somewhere. I’m able to quickly hop on and interact in a different way, but still interact with more people…And so it’s been pretty cool to be able to touch more people and help more people with great technology. But I definitely I missed a lot of things about life before COVID… [being] in-person with the kids, those things were fun and hanging out with them and being able to learn. You can learn a lot of stuff from just hanging around kids and what they’re into nowadays and a plethora of things. So I definitely miss that.”
Starting this year, Armstead has opened each of his media sessions by bringing light to issues of social justice. He has addressed such issues as racism and education inequality, and he sat on the 49ers Players for Social Justice Council, which allocated the team’s $1 million donation to organizations working on these issues following the horrific death of George Floyd.
“…It’s just about how special he is as the individual,” said 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman. “I think some people get confused, ‘Hey, man, he’s an NFL player. He has to be active in the community. He has to do this. He has to that.’ Nobody has to do anything. We’re just normal people who play professional football. The fact that he takes time out of his day to read to the kids, to create opportunities, to make people more aware about social justice issues, that’s something that he personally takes pride in. And I think it goes a long way. And just being an example for the young guys, an example of somebody who can do more, who can aspire to be more and you can inspire to be like. And I think it does influence guys to try and do more.”
Saleh sees Armstead’s influence go well beyond the locker room and beyond the field.
“I think he influences his coaches, too,” Saleh said. “I think he influences people in general. A lot of people forget that these are 25-year-old men and they’re still scratching the surface on life. Arik is an old soul for that matter and so you get guys like him and Sherman who are ahead of their years with regards to just life. So, they’re further along than their age will tell them. I know what I was doing at 25 and keep that quiet. They’re tremendous influences, not just on their teammates, but on everybody in the building, on everybody who follows the Niners. Arik is…a very thoughtful, very smart, very calculated man and he’s very aware of his surroundings. He’s not just a football player and you can get into any kind of conversation you want with him. He is a very unique individual in that he is as bright as he is and with the skill set that he has.”
For Armstead, it’s all just part of being who he is and doing what he does.
“I just try to be myself and do what I can,” Armstead said. “I’ve always taken it as a responsibility of mine to do these things. And those things just organically rub off on other people. And it’s been cool to have conversations with my teammates about various topics other than football things that are going on in life, things that we experience, things that happen in our communities. And to be able to dissect those conversations and learn from them and learn from each other and be able to take that information and go back where we came from and impact people has been amazing to be a part of. And it really cool part about being on this team and the job that we have in the game we get to play and bringing everybody together.”
All 32 nominees of the award will receive a $40,000 donation for the charity of their choosing, while the winner will receive a $250,000 donation to said charity. Fans can vote for the winner on Twitter using #WPMOYChallenge followed by the nominee’s last name. The winner of the award will be announced during NFL Honors, which will air the week of Super Bowl LV.