By Kim Constantinesco
Jerry Azumah, 37, has always had a drive to run toward something; the end zone, the NFL’s top wide receivers, and most recently, the finish line of the Bank of America Chicago Marathon.
The former Chicago Bears cornerback (1999-2005), who scored the very last touchdown in the old Soldier Field on a Donovan McNabb pick-six, ran his first marathon in October. The thumping his body took was familiar yet different after 20 weeks of training for the 26.2 mile race. This was no pop in the shoulder pads. This was constant pounding on the legs.
Up until a few years ago, any running Azumah did was of the sprinting variety. After all, that’s all that was required of him on the turf.
“I never wanted to go out there and run 5-8 miles just because,” Azumah said of any previous desire to run long distance.
Azumah trained for the race with experienced marathoners, who enlightened him on the distance and all of its potential saboteurs such as chaffing and foods not suitable for the stomach.
Azumah went on to complete the race in 4:52:14, a solid performance for a first-timer.
“The first 13 miles felt really good, and then I got up to about 20 miles and my body wanted to stop,” Azumah said. “I felt good about it. The only thing I would have changed was being in the situation where I didn’t get out of synch. When I was running the marathon, I was kind of looking around, enjoying it, and taking it all in. I wasn’t really concentrating on the things that I needed to do to sustain the 26.2 miles, which was properly hydrating and taking salt pills. I kind of got away from that because my eyes were wandering, and it caught up with me in the later miles.”
Overall, it was a positive experience for Azumah, but he likely won’t run another marathon again.
“It was very hard to prepare for one,” Azumah said. “It kind of took over my life to a certain degree. I definitely wanted to run one of them, but I’m not sure if I’ll run another one. It just takes a real toll on your body and I’ve done that before while playing professional football.”
In a sense, Azumah is ready to pass the marathon torch on to someone else, but he’s keeping his life’s purpose in tact.
A Real Education
The son of Theophilus and Bertha Azumah, Jerry grew up a first generation American in Worcester, MA, after his parents moved to the U.S. from Ghana, West Africa. He played Pop Warner football, went on to excel in high school, and secured a football scholarship to the University of New Hampshire where he majored in Sociology and minored in Criminal Justice. Sounds pretty standard for an NFL pro, right?
The meat of this education “sandwich” is important to understand, however. The Azumah’s didn’t have a lot of money when Jerry was young, yet they wanted their son to have the best education possible at Saint Peter-Marian High School, a private school.
“It obviously costs tuition to go there,” Azumah said. “I was placed in a program called the Adopt-A-Student program. The program was basically a benefactor agreeing to pay for all of a student’s school needs, and taking the financial burden off their shoulders. I was able to link up with one of those benefactors, and they took that financial burden away from me and my family. I was able to go to school without worrying about paying the tuition.”
Once Azumah established himself at the pro level, he started the Azumah Student Assistant Program (ASAP), designed to provide scholarships to undeserved students.
“I said to myself, when I get older and things happen where I can give back, I want to give back in the form of the same help that was given to me,” Azumah said. “I believe that education is the way to unlock a lot of different doors, and it’s something that everyone needs to move forward. I’m a firm believer in that. That’s how we got the Azumah Student Assistance program, which is a play off of the Adopt-A-Student Program that I was placed into. That was my way of giving back.”
There are more ways that Azumah gives back, however. Aside from running the marathon to raise money for ASAP, Azumah raised funds for PAWS Chicago, the region’s largest no-kill animal shelter. He also sits on the board for Bears Care, which is the team’s charitable organization that strives to help others in the Chicago area.
“My purpose is to pass the torch,” Azumah said. “I want to be able to tell people my stories, my trials, and accomplishments. I want to tell people that it wasn’t easy getting here, but it’s definitely possible and I’m living proof. I want to tell people to move forward and follow your dreams because things will happen if you put the time, effort, and work into it. My purpose is to pay it forward for the next person to succeed.”
That’s the ultimate ‘something’ that Azumah is running toward, and he’s got some good training under his belt.