By Jibriel Taha
The NFL released the nominees for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award on Thursday, and two former Cardinal made the list: safety Michael Thomas ’12 of the Houston Texans and defensive tackle Harrison Phillips ’18 of the Buffalo Bills.
Each team nominates one player for the prestigious award that recognizes excellence off the field in one’s community. The award, first given in 1970 to Johnny Unitas, was renamed after 1979 recipient Walter Payton’s death to honor his humanitarian legacy.
Each nominee receives a $40,000 donation to a charity of their choice, and the winner will receive a donation of $250,000. The Walter Payton Man of the Year will be announced during the NFL Honors awards show the week of the Super Bowl.
Thomas’ off-the-field work focuses on both education and social justice. On the education side, he is actively involved with the Dreambuilders Foundation and is especially committed to awarding scholarships to students who attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). In addition to financial assistance to students, the organization provides grants to small businesses and other organizations. Thomas has also been a spokesperson for the Houston Texans Stats Challenge program, which inspires kids to enjoy math using football.
On the social justice side, Thomas is one of 12 players who chose to take a knee in solidarity during Week 1 of the 2016 NFL season. After the death of George Floyd in May, Thomas designed the “END RACISM” pre-game warm-up shirts that have been worn by players across the league. Finally, he organized a video calling for social justice reform featuring other Texans teammates.
“I never thought of myself as an activist,” Thomas said. “But because of that stand that I took, I’ve kind of been in the center of that world. And I’ve just been trying to make sure that I’m doing the next thing when it comes to fighting for social justice and real change in this country.”
He is also the founder of victorymondays.net, a platform for NFL athletes to auction off memorabilia or experiences and donate the proceeds to a charity of their choice, has been active in Breast Cancer Awareness initiatives and participated in the Boys and Girls Club of America Youth for Change town hall.
He was previously nominated for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 2018 when with the New York Giants after creating “Camp Mike T,” an annual free football youth camp.
Thomas said his passion and desire to be heavily involved off the field stems from simply watching football as a kid.
“Ever since I was a kid, you grow up seeing Play 60 commercials and stuff like that, I just made a promise to myself that I want to be visible especially in the community that I came from,” he said.
Thomas said that his parents also were a major influence on his desire to give back to his community. Thomas grew up in Houston, Texas, where his father coached a local Little League team, and his mother was active with church youth groups.
“Growing up, seeing my parents and how they were actively involved in the community, I always wanted to give back,” he said.
Thomas also mentioned the impact that the diversity, drive and intellectual curiosity of Stanford’s student body had on his life.
“It was an amazing experience,” he said of his time at Stanford. “It was something that was totally different than anything I ever did growing up. I’m so grateful for that experience, and it opened my eyes in so many ways. It’s shaped how I approach my life.”
Thomas was undrafted when he left Stanford, and he spent time with the San Francisco 49ers, Miami Dolphins and New York Giants before signing a one-year contract with the Texans in early 2020. But, he said his journey makes his nomination for the award especially meaningful.
“It’s humbling for me,” he said. “For them to think that highly of me, while there are so many other people worthy. It’s an honor and it’s a blessing.”
The next steps Thomas wants to take with his off-field work are to create an endowment for his HBCU scholarships and expand his Victory Mondays program to other sports. To support Thomas’ work, one can donate directly to the initiatives or bid on game-worn items from players across the league on Victory Mondays’ website.
Phillips of the Bills engages a wide range of off-the-field work as well. Most notably, he created the Playmakers Organization, which supports children with intellectual disabilities. The program gives kids the opportunity to play sports with other at-risk youth. Additionally, he donated $10,000 worth of meals to healthcare workers in New York during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As much of the country pushed for social justice last summer, Phillips was one of the leaders of the Bills’ partnership with Buffalo Public Schools to provide Wi-Fi for underprivileged students. The Bills donated $500,000 from players’ Week 1 game checks to the school district.
Phillips is also the Bills’ nominee for the Salute to Service Award, which recognizes those who demonstrate an exceptional commitment to honoring and supporting the military community. Influenced by his grandfathers’ military service, Phillips has visited the local Veterans Affairs hospital in Buffalo as well as worked with Western New York Heroes to provide financial assistance to veterans and their families in need.
“I have always been a firm believer in paying it forward,” Phillips told buffalobills.com. “I was blessed with a fantastic village of people who poured into me as I grew up and helped me get to where I am today. I am passionate about playing a positive role in being a part of others’ villages — to help better their lives and in turn, making our communities a greater place to live.”