By Kim Constantinesco

The NFL season is undoubtedly grueling, and with just one lone bye week giving players a four-day break, most hightail it to the beach, or barricade themselves away from football obligations with their families.

Not Tennessee Titans inside linebacker Wesley Woodyard. In his team’s Sunday win over the Bears, he put in work to the tune of one interception, five tackles, and multiple pass breakups. Then, rather than slipping away into relaxation abyss, he put on a business suit and hopped a flight to Denver — his old city — where he spent six seasons with the Broncos.

The 30-year-old nine-year NFL veteran, husband, and father of two intentionally scheduled his foundation’s seventh annual holiday toy drive during his bye week. Not only that, but he hosted it in a city he used to call home.  Again, atypical for a professional athlete to back track in order to give back.

“I can always say Denver brought me in. The city’s like my third home after I got done with college. Giving up a couple of days to come out here means the world to me, and means the world to the rest of these kids,” Woodyard said. “I feel it’s important I use my platform to continue to help change lives. And, I’m going to help till the day I die.”

His former teammates and current Denver Bronco starters like Chris Harris Jr. and Brandon Marshall showed up in force to support their friend’s cause.

Woodyard, who was raised in LaGrange, Georgia, a suburb 70 miles southeast of Atlanta, started 16 Ways Foundation with his cousin, Derrick Kelly, and Joe Soloman, early in his NFL career.

Wesley Woodyard reads at story time during the 16 Ways 7th annual Toy Drive.

Wesley Woodyard reads at story time during the 16 Ways 7th annual Toy Drive.

Their mission is to offer workshops, camps, and seminars designed to build self-esteem and resilience for at-risk youth between 8 and 18 years old. They promote mental and physical fitness within their anti-bullying advocacy, literacy programs, football camps, and a specialized ‘Girls’ Program.’

The road to get 16 Ways off the ground wasn’t exactly easy. First off, NFL “advisors” told Woodyard to tread carefully when he initially inquired about starting a foundation.

“They told me things like, ‘You shouldn’t do that. It’s going to take so much time. You’re going to give all this money out of your pocket just to give back to other people,'” Woodyard said. “To me, I think that’s a very selfish view. If you’re not out there doing anything, you’re doing society a disservice.”

So, Woodyard proceeded, and today, 16 Ways has deep footprints not only in Colorado, but in Tennessee, Georgia, and Kentucky, where Woodyard played college ball.

“The reason why it was so important to me to start this is because I know it takes a village to raise a child,” Woodyard said. “Everybody poured into me and that’s why I’m successful today. Because other people showed me that they care about me, that’s why I’m able to live out my dreams. Today’s world is really rough on our kids. I think it’s important for kids to have a safe environment where they can push themselves to be better people.”

Woodyard knows. He was raised my his mother, and had she not funneled positive influences into his life, who knows where he would be.

“When you’re from a single parent home, you meet a lot of different characters and fortunately for me, I met a lot of good people,” Woodyard said. “My mom was a very nice warm person, but she was tough, too.”

She used football as an incentive in life rather than telling her son it was the “only way” to make a living. If his grades weren’t good enough, football took a back seat. Simple as that.

And that ” be a good person before you’re a good athlete” message is ingrained in 16 Ways.

As for the toy drive, Woodyard and his powerhouse team collected about 250 toys to make the holiday season a little brighter for Denver’s youth. The gifts will be distributed to the city’s Department of Human Services, Children’s Hospital of Colorado, the Boys & Girls Club, an elementary school, and the Tennyson Center, which provides residential and therapeutic services for children who are survivors of severe abuse or neglect, or have significant mental health issues.

How’s that for a gift wrapped winning play?