By Terrance Turner
Feb. 10, 2022
Tonight, the NFL’s best and brightest gathered in Los Angeles, California, to attend the NFL Honors. In what was largely a low-key ceremony (except for the exuberant efforts of Keegan Michael-Key), the winners mostly offered anodyne speeches, and many of the categories were foregone conclusions. But Rams offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth concluded the proceedings with a stirring call to action for both players and audiences.
The NFL Defensive Player of the Year is Steelers guard TJ Watt, who tied Michael Strahan’s record of 22.5 sacks this season. Presented the award by his brother J.J., Mr. Watt thanked his parents and his brothers, along with his fiancee. He said that he’d attended the awards show five or six times and has never come home with hardware, but he’s left more motivated than ever by his win.
Kicker Justin Tucker won Best Moment of the Year for his astonishing 66-yard field goal that helped the Baltimore Ravens beat the Detroit Lions. Accepting the award from former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, Tucker credited his success: “When you talk about a big play, it’s about being in the right place at the right time but also you can have the right people around you.” He also thanked “divine intervention” — “God was working.”
Offensive Rookie of the Year: JaMarr Chase. He thanked parents, teammates, and organization. Defensive Rookie of the Year was unanimous winner Micah Parsons. The rookie linebacker thanked God first: “I’m a strong believer in God and just walking humbly,” he said. (Parsons set a Cowboys’ rookie record with 13 sacks, and the coaches credited him with 64 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 42 quarterback pressures, 3 forced fumbles and 3 pass deflections, according to ESPN.)
Joe Burrow won Comeback Player of the Year.
Issa Rae, presenting, said: “Systemic problems in our society have risen to the surface, and let’s face it: they’re going to be hard to overcome. But when you’re around NFL guys, you realize that just because something is hard doesn’t mean it can’t be done.” After an “Inspire Change” montage celebrating the NFL’s social change initiatives, there was a moment …
Members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame were introduced: LeRoy Butler from the Packers. San Francisco’s all-time sack leader Steve Young. Saints and Panthers linebacker Sam Mills, represented by his widow. Three-time champion “and a deep threat for the ages”, Cliff Branch was represented by his sister. Also inducted: Richard Seymour, the first on-field official ever to be in Canton, and fellow official Mr. Art McNally, “who is celebrating at home but represented by his son Tom.” Another player honored: “One of the most dominant tackles of the 1990s — and the first ever Jacksonville Jaguar — Tony Boselli.” Finally, Coach Dick Vermeil.
Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel won Coach of the Year. “My job and every coach’s job is to teach, develop, and make a connection and make an impact,” he said. Vrabel thanked his family and his wife, his best friend, who goes by the name “Stretch.” Vrabel concluded: “This is a reflection of our 91 players who helped us win 12 games, and our coaching staff. So thank you. It’s a pleasure. Thank you.”
Michael Irvin took the stage. Irvin paid tribute to Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib, who shocked the world by coming out in June. “Last year, a one-minute Instagram video had an impact that is impossible to measure. It declared unequivocally that members of the LGBTQ+ community can play at the highest level in the National Football League. Years ago, when I learned my brother Vaughn was gay, news like that would have been a ‘stop-the-presses’ kind of moment instead it was created warmly and widely by the NFL family and the world at large. But we cannot underestimate what that single message means to the countless athletes and other members of the community who have long hidden their true selves out of fear.”
Cue a video featuring former New England Patriots offensive lineman Ryan O’Callaghan; former college defensive back Avery Saffold; Illinois high school football player Jake Streder; Sam Rapoport, Senior Director of Diversity and Inclusion for the National Football League; and Casey Pick, Senior Fellow for Advocacy and Government Affairs at The Trevor Project. All of them shared their struggles with coming out.
Pick recalled obliquely coming out to her mother while driving her to the bar. “When I came home, three days later, hoping that she’d cooled down, I found that she had changed the locks, and there was a bag of my clothing outside. She couldn’t open the door, no matter how much I cried.”
An estimated 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, and according to a recent study from the University of Chicago, they face a 120% higher risk of homelessness. They are also four times more likely to attempt suicide. In his coning-out video, Nassib highlighted his donation to the Trevor Project, a suicide intervention organization. “The Trevor Project saves young LGBTQ lives, period,” Rapoport declared in the NFL film.
Then the participants joined Irvin on stage following the video, featuring them sharing those struggles.
Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp won AP Offensive Player of the Year “God is good; I’ll tell you what,” he began, to applause. “I’m not sure where my wife is sitting; I just want to thank her. She is my inspiration; she’s a stone cold fox, too,” he said, as the audience laughed. “My family has been with me from the very beginning, the support they’ve shown me; got my teammates and my coaches, who have made an absolute joy to come in and come to work every single day; I’ve loved it. And then to the people here, the people sitting in these seats, you guys; I mean, you guys make work so much fun. So competitive. You make this game so great. Thank you to each one of you for your work.”
Aaron Rodgers won MVP. “It’s been an amazing 17 years,” he said. “I’d like to thank Matt LaFleur, and his perfectly groomed eyebrows,” he said. “In all seriousness, two out of three years winning this thing — you’re a huge part of that. I love you; I appreciate you. Thanks for trusting me, supporting me empowering me and making things easy for me appreciate your buddy.”
In the final award of the evening, Rams offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. According to NFL.com, Whitworth launched the Big Whit Homes for L.A. Families program at the beginning of the season and pledged to donate $20,000 after each Rams home game. He also made donations to repair homes in his home state of Louisiana and moved Angelenos facing housing insecurity into affordable homes. He raised thousands for the Aboriginal Food Bank and donated more than $800,000 for the Make A Wish Foundation.
Whitworth explained his view on social change during his acceptance speech. “It starts at my dinner table, and it starts with the kids that I raise. I want to teach them what it means to be a servant be a part of something bigger than yourself.” After thanking his wife Melissa, he added: “I’ve always believed in community service starts around the house; it starts with our own kids, because the best lessons we can give them is for them to learn from Mom and Dad. It means to try, to fail, to regroup,” he said. “I just want to thank Molly Higgins from the Los Angeles Rooms organization. Their commitment to the community is nothing more than greatness.”
“The people who come to see us play, who watch our game on TV, who buy our jerseys, who follow us on social media — they’re why our game exists. That’s why we have a field to play on. We are financially supported and provided the opportunity to play a kids’ game because of the support we receive from communities across this country and across the world,” Whitworth said. “But how are we supporting back and what ways are we playing it forward?”
“It’s called an investment,” he said. “You can apply those three things to any charity or cause you have a passion for. You can invest your time, you can invest your finances or you can invest your voice — doesn’t matter which. We just have to keep investing in each other. Let your heart lead you all the way.”
“None of us know when that moment is going to present itself; you just have to be available when it does.”