Some people are born knowing what they're passionate about. Others, like Philadelphia Eagle Chris Long, stumble into it.
"It wasn't an epiphany moment," he says. "It kind of happened by accident."
In 2013, Long decided to summit Mount Kilimanjaro in the off-season on a whim. He hardly expected to run into anyone he knew across the world in Tanzania, but that's exactly what happened.
Long, his wife Megan, and their son Waylon all love to hike. All photos courtesy of Chris Long, used with permission.
“After we came down the mountain, my buddy and I went to a local bar,” Long says. “I hear someone say my name. I turn around, and it’s Joe Buck.”
Buck, a sports announcer from Long’s then-hometown St. Louis, was working on a water well project with Doug Pitt, the goodwill ambassador to Tanzania (and Brad Pitt's brother). He asked Long if he wanted to come with them on a day trip to one of the villages where they were working, but Long's flight home was already booked.
Long knew he wanted to do something to give back to Tanzanians, and the random meeting with Buck sparked an idea in him.
He went home and started researching the clean water crisis in Tanzania. Before long, he was hooked — he knew that getting clean water to East Africa was something he wanted to do. So he formed Waterboys.
Waterboys brings NFL players and fans together to help fund the construction of wells in villages in East Africa. The original goal was 32 well projects — one for each football team in the NFL. This year, Waterboys funded its 29th project. “Right now we’ve served over 100,000 people,” he says. “Ultimately our goal will be a million.”
Long’s passion stems from his desire to make a clear, demonstrable change. “Water has such a measurable impact,” he says.
Without a well, community members — typically women and young girls — have to dedicate long hours to traveling on foot to find water. But the water is still dirty, so when people drink it, they can fall ill, keeping kids out of school and adults away from work.
“It’s about more than just having clean water for survival,” says Long. Introducing clean, accessible water gives people an opportunity to thrive.
One of the key elements to Waterboys’ cause is they don’t actually build the wells — they pay local construction crews to do it.
“I didn’t want to be the guy who slaps down a well and says ‘hey, good luck,’” Long says. By hiring local crews to work the construction project, Waterboys doesn’t just provide a much-needed source of clean water. It also funnels money into the village’s local economy, creating jobs and increasing the community’s independence and sustainability.
For Long, giving back in this way is one of the best parts of his job and what makes it all worthwhile.
“I love football, but I don’t think I’d love football as much if I weren’t able to have this impact,” he says. He’s made a point to capitalize on the platform that being in the NFL has afforded him to help other people.
Chris and his brother Kyle, who plays for the Chicago Bears and is also a member of Waterboys.
“If I just started the Chris Long Water Foundation, people in Seattle wouldn’t care about that. But if I could get a guy on the Seahawks on board, then I could get people there involved, too,” Long says. He now has 13 other current or former NFL players, including his brother Kyle, working alongside him.
As for the future, Long says Waterboys has no intention of slowing down. In fact, they're expanding.
“I will always love Tanzania and I’ll stay involved there, but it’s is a tough sell. It’s a long trip and it’s hard to get guys to go there in the off-season,” Long says. “So we’re looking to expand, possibly to Central America and to Haiti.”
He’s also expanded his charitable efforts to include the military community. He now runs an annual trip called “Conquering Kili,” where NFL players and combat veterans summit Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for Waterboys.
Long's aware that his charities benefit from his fame as a football player, so he’s doing his best to fit in as much good work as he can while he’s still playing. "I know I won’t be able to have this impact forever, so I’m kind of in a rush to get stuff done," he says.
And he urges other to use their own influence in the same way — be it through their jobs, networks, or just via social media. A philanthropic spirit doesn't have to develop out of a fortuitous meeting in a foreign country. It can come out of any issue you see in your daily life that you want to improve.
Even the smallest contribution to a cause like Long's can have a huge impact. “We’ve definitely saved lives,” he says. "We've transformed communities."
Chris Long is one of more than 750 NFL players who will lace up for charitable causes as part of the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats initiative. Starting Nov. 28, NFL players will reveal their custom cleats, many of which will be auctioned to raise money for the charitable organizations they support. For more information, visit www.nfl.com/mycausemycleats.