Players joining forces off the field for good causes is nothing new. All one has to do is look back on the past month for several examples. Every fan was treated to the NFL Pink campaign for an entire month as the league relaxed its uniform rules and players raised awareness for breast cancer. Hurricane Sandy in New York was a painful reminder that there’s far more to life than football, as the NFL and the NFLPA made donations to assist the relief efforts.

Last month on separate weeks both Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears reached out to the family of a Bears fan killed after a game in Jacksonville. Both players have been seared in the media over the past two years for character flaws and perceived attitude problems, but their acts of kindness barely generated a blip on the radar. True, sincere charity isn’t done for publicity, but in this age where negativity and fabricated conflicts drive many “news” stories, it’s important to reflect on off-field contributions. It doesn’t take much for some athletes to make a big difference, but a small difference is all it takes for some people’s lives to be greatly uplifted.

In my time as a football player at Simon Fraser University, the most important service I ever participated in sticks with me to this day. For two years in the offseason one of our captains organized twice weekly visits to a “youth correctional facility” for PE period. We went and took gym class twice a week with juvenile offenders in maximum security prison. Ever play three-on-three pickup basketball with an unnamed 16-year-old murderer? I have. We called it jail ball because that’s what it was.

I don’t care how hard or street you think you are. Seeing a baby-faced teen with pimples in shackles and orange garb processed and searched by a hefty sheriff with sidearms on his waist hits deep in the chest and resonates on many levels. I rarely even visited the principal’s office in high school, so if I knew he had a loaded gun and pepper spray on his belt at all times I wouldn’t have ever spoken out of turn. I probably would have shut my mouth for the entirety of high school and finger painted at lunch.

After passing through three lockouts/checkpoints, myself and five teammates were locked into a gymnasium with about 20 “residents” who had earned the privilege of gym time over the past week. With two counselors (guards) watching, we played basketball for an hour with 15-18 year olds. Originally we were intimidated by the setting, although they were far more intimidated by us (surrounding myself with a couple of linebackers and defensive ends was not a coincidence).

The games themselves were entertaining and fairly competitive, but the experience was an eye-opener. Most of the kids came from broken homes. Emotional issues were prevalent, as some residents punched walls after a missed layup or screamed at each other over a poor inbounds pass. Acting out resulted in lost privileges, but after two weeks gym attendance spiked and we were asked to come for two hours instead of one, which we agreed to without hesitation. The anticipation and look on faces when we returned was disarming. We’d become weekly celebrities without knowing it. Most of us lounged in sweatpants on weekends and grumbled about class assignments. The residents wore mandatory sweatpants 24/7 and played basketball in velcro shoes. There’s a proverb about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. How about just trying them on?

We spent our weekends in the offseason working out, training, attending townhouse parties on campus, playing loud music, dancing, letting the air out of campus security vehicles, and dodging parking tickets. Now we were role models to kids three-to-five years our junior who came from broken homes with serious life issues. I remember clearly one resident being released from the facility but returning three weeks later. In between he finished his sentence and was released home. His father was still in prison and his stepmother was no longer in the picture. After waiting for three days with no supervision, food, or family, hunger drove the resident to hold up a gas station for chips and pepperoni with a knife, resulting in his fifth visit to prison in the same amount of time that I went from one midterm to the next. It’s like comparing apples to entire systematic failures and tragic childhoods.

Another memory was the water fountain. In our third week at the facility as we increased our time from one hour to two, we took a short break in between hours (as one group of residents switched with another) and had a quick drink from the water fountain in the corner of the gym. One of the counselors quietly rounded us up off to the side and said “I forgot to tell you at the orientation, it’s probably best if you bring your own water bottle. The kids do a lot of gross– ahhh, you don’t– you don’t want to know. Just bring your own water in a bottle. I should have told you two weeks ago”. I never felt thirsty at the prison again. I never took practice for granted again. I never took water breaks in practice for granted again. I never took clean access to water for granted again, period.

Looking back I honestly couldn’t tell you what our stated purpose was or if we made a long-term difference. We were there to donate our time and provide an escape for a group of kids who hardly had a chance. I learned more from them and developed a deeper perspective as a result of their lives than anything they took from me. I felt better about myself, not because of what I did, but because of what I had.

For us, four hours a week was a matter of flexible scheduling. For them, two hours meant an entire week of best behavior in a setting born of failures and corrupted youth. We were college athletes choosing career paths and defining our lives; they were just numbers desperate for a chance at childhood. True, it didn’t take much for us, but we got a lot out of it. I’m not so sure the kids did.

Luke Purm is a freelance writer and former college football player (a wide receiver at Simon Fraser University) with an inside look at the sights and sounds from the huddle, down the field, through the air, in the endzone, under the pile, out of the locker room, on the scoreboard, and everywhere else football sweats, smells, yells, breathes and collides with life. Follow him on Twitter.