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THE SOCCER BALL seemed more like a lottery ball, bouncing lightly in the air, from knee to foot, from foot to knee. A 10-year-old Navajo girl kept the juggle drill alive while PGA Tour pro Notah Begay watched her team practice on a soccer field outside Albuquerque last fall.
"Her dad is an alcoholic; she lives in poverty," said Begay, a full-blooded Native American, who described the girl's skills in a recent telephone interview. "Two years ago she couldn't juggle once. Now she can do it 30 times without the ball ever touching the ground. This is her outlet, her escape." The girl is part of a four-year-old soccer program that Begay started and helps fund for the children of the Pueblo of San Felipe in New Mexico, where median household income on the reservation is $29,800 and 38% of the population lives below the poverty line. And that was before the recession.
"I think about disparity all the time, making the type of money that professional athletes make, and yet probably 95 percent of my family lives at or below poverty," Begay says. "It's worse now for everyone." Begay grew up on the Isleta reservation, a dozen miles south of Albuquerque, in a house with a futon as the only piece of furniture; and yet he got out—one leap at a time. As a kid he jumped a chain-link fence to get to a municipal golf course, where he cleaned bathrooms in exchange for playing privileges. By 2001, at only 28, Begay had won $3 million on the Tour. Back trouble has bedeviled him in recent years, but with four victories and $5 million in career earnings as he enters his 13th PGA season, he gets it: He's one of the lucky ones—especially now.
"There is guilt because I can have what I want when I want," he says. "I haven't seen a credit-card bill or mortgage statement in God knows how long because I have people who take care of that. But I know life is paycheck to paycheck in Indian country. The economy hits the poorest first, and hits them the hardest. It makes you think."
Bling isn't the thing anymore. In locker rooms and clubhouses, athletes are identifying with a new American reflection of cultural cool: President Obama. Suddenly the lingo of community service is in, self-serving smack is out. "I feel like my true purpose here is to service others," former Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning said last Friday in announcing that he would not come out of retirement. "It's bigger than basketball." Even as pitcher CC Sabathia signed his seven-year, $161 million deal with the Yankees in December, he admitted sheepishly, "With the economy being the way it is ... the huge money, it was, you know, pretty crazy."
There is a gilded guilt among athletes who got theirs but are having a helluva time enjoying it because they see unemployment in their own families and boarded-up businesses in their hometowns and swaths of empty seats in the arenas. But there are a few Bubble Boys strolling along fairways for a living who simply see the Obama wave as a threat to their taxes. Boo Weekley was asked right after the election of Obama about his own retirement target of $8 million. "That number just went up," he joked.
Life on the Tour can have an almost Stepford-like sameness, but Begay remains wonderfully different, a man grounded in his unique perspective. Before Obama made personal accountability more hip, Begay understood the math of circumstance. "I've been put in a category because I'm from a certain place," says Begay, who can recite by heart the suicide rate (3.3 times the national average) and high school dropout rate (twice the national average) on reservations. "And 80 percent of Native American kids who do make it to college will drop out by the second year. From an economic standpoint, that's not a very good use of your resources."
Begay has a plan, though. Through the consulting arm of his nonprofit Notah Begay III Foundation, he is pushing his own economic stimulus package to increase revenue streams in Indian reservations with new infrastructure, including the development of golf courses next to existing casinos.
"We have to have more than hope," Begay says. "For years, that's all we had." He returns to the New Mexico reservations a dozen times a year to watch over his youth soccer and golf programs and to consult with local businesses. Begay served a seven-day sentence for DWI in 2000, and he admits it took him a while to "trade my partying days for community service. I realize I can't change everything for everybody. But whether you're rich or poor, you have 24 hours in a day. That's your resource. As an athlete, you ask yourself, What do you do with it?"
Be part of a revolution.