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By Josh Katzowitz
INDIANAPOLIS -- Three of the game best receivers -- one who is a surefire Hall of Famer, one who is potential Hall of Famer and one who’s one of the best up-and-comers in the league -- sat in a conference room on the first floor of the JW Marriott on Thursday afternoon and compared stories.
Of how they grew up, of the obstacles they faced and of how they overcame those barriers to become successful athletes.
Steelers receiver Hines Ward faced racial epithets because he is half-Korean. Saints tight end Jimmy Graham faced the loneliness of living in foster homes. Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez reminisced about the bullies that used to terrorize his childhood.
All came together to promote a documentary that will air Feb. 10 on the USA Network called “NFL Characters Unite” in which Ward, Graham, Gonzalez and Tony Dungy meet school-age kids facing the same circumstances they did when they grew up.
“We were impressed with the candor and depth the players showed,” said producer Charlie Ebersol. “The effect was profound.”
The four were introduced to children whom they could help and give advice about how to deal with their life trials, particularly since the foursome had tough times living out their own childhoods. Dungy quit his high school football team his senior year because of racial discrimination, and Gonzalez feared leaving his house because of two older kids who picked on him constantly.
“It was very personal for me,” Graham said. “The things that (his adolescent partner) went through were a lot more than I went through. His father and brother were murdered, his mother was on drugs. The people who were supposed to have been there for him and love him weren’t there.”
Ward worked with a Pittsburgh-area high school student named Carlton Dennis, who wrote a song called “City of Prayer.” Through their documentary’s producers, he was flown to Los Angeles to lay down the track in a music studio. It’s available today on iTunes and is featured in the documentary. Ward heard the full song for the first time Thursday, and he immediately pictured one image.
“I can just see the smile on his face,” Ward said. “That’s all he wanted to do.”
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