ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When Denver Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard gave a needy family some money last Christmas, he didn't think it would end up changing a young boy's life. Woodyard still doesn't seem to grasp the impact of his generosity.
The Tennyson Center for Children in Denver helps youngsters, many of whom have been affected by neglect and abuse. The center has an annual Operation Santa program, matching sponsors with families who would otherwise have nothing for Christmas. Because of a miscommunication between a social worker and a therapist last Christmas, nobody had lined up a sponsor for 12-year-old Devante and his family.
Devante (his mother, through Tennyson Center representatives, requested his last name not be used) was living full time in the center last December. Tennyson Center has about 40 kids who are full-time residents, hosts about 90 additional kids during daytime hours and helps about 100 others outside of the center.
Devante was a pretty typical kid at the center. His mother, who was affected by abuse issues as a child and later in life, gave birth to Devante at a young age. Devante suffered from anger management issues based on issues of abuse and neglect. And last year, he was facing Christmas without any gifts. He fretted about his younger brother and sister.
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"I wasn't worried about me, I was worried about them," Devante said. "They still believe in Santa Claus."
Tricia Muniz, an executive assistant to the CEO at Tennyson and Devante's mentor, found out at 9 a.m. Christmas Eve that Devante didn't have a sponsor. She called Broncos' director of player development Harold Chatman hoping for help. Chatman asked around the locker room and Woodyard volunteered.
"No kid should go without having a Christmas," said Woodyard, a former University of Kentucky player. "I didn't hesitate."
Devante and his brother went to the Broncos' team store with Woodyard's donation and picked out some things, such as jerseys and a poster, and a stuffed animal for their little sister. With the leftover money, the principal at the center bought the family other gifts to open on Christmas, including an MP3 for Devante. That's where many of these types of stories end, but Woodyard wanted to do more.
Woodyard said he didn't grow up poor but had friends who did. And he was taught to give to others who are less fortunate. In this case, he didn't want to just give money. He wanted to meet Devante in person.
This spring, Devante met Woodyard at the Broncos' Dove Valley headquarters. He had a ton of football questions, Woodyard said. Devante told him some details about his life story. Woodyard remembers that Devante never stopped smiling.
"He's a nice kid," Woodyard said. "He's got one of those smiles that brightens up the room."
Woodyard told him about his career, how he wasn't drafted in 2008 but made the team anyway. And he offered some advice.
"We talked about how I got there, and how I should change my life around and do the right thing," Devante said. "And teach other kids what they need to do is turn their life around and do the right thing."
Devante fought through some difficult moments the same day he met Woodyard. He found out when he got back to the center that he wasn't going home to his mother that day, as anticipated. He was crushed and was asked what would help.
"He said Wesley had talked to him about team sports, and he had an opportunity to play football at the Boys & Girls Club of Denver," Muniz said. "We jumped on that and got him involved."
Devante played offensive line and running back. The team made the championship game. His attitude improved throughout the year. He became a "positive peer" at the center — one of the kids who helps others. Football helped him channel his anger and offered something positive. He realized that if he got in trouble he couldn't play football.
"It keeps me out of trouble and keeps my mind in a different place instead of going out and doing something that gets me in more trouble," Devante said. "It's not worth it."
Woodyard said he keeps up with Devante's progress, mostly through Chatman. In the past year, Devante went back to live at home, and he was scheduled to start attending public school this month.
Woodyard decided he would like to be the Christmas sponsor for Devante's family again. Muniz said she told Devante's mother the news at one of his football games.
"She had these huge, huge tears, and I said 'I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you,' " Muniz said. "She said, 'It's not upsetting. He is the reason my son is here on this football field.' It was not just a check being written, by any means."
Muniz said Devante wasn't trusting, but walls have been broken down since last Christmas. She said Devante now understands that people care about him and his family.
"Our kids have a low self-esteem, and they don't think they deserve anything and tend to think the bad things that happen to them are because they're bad kids — they aren't," Tennyson Center president Bob Cooper said. "Then something like this happens to them, and it's like 'Whoa, they care enough to do this?' "
Woodyard knows of the stories of progress with Devante and his family. He's humble when they're brought up to him. He didn't give to the family to get attention, and seems uncomfortable getting any attention for his act.
"You never realize how deeply it can affect someone and someone's family," Woodyard said. "I just did it out of the kindness of my heart."