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The idea began in church for Ryan Nece, with a pastor's sermon about the Good Samaritan, but you do not have to be religious to understand what Nece is trying to share—the lightness of heart that comes with helping someone in some way, large or small. Nece, a linebacker who has played at UCLA and for the Buccaneers and the Lions, knows that anyone can get hooked on that feeling, that it is the best kind of addiction, and he just can't keep it to himself. Sometimes the greatest gift is reminding others how good it feels to give.
That is what led Nece to bring $4,000 in cash to a Tampa restaurant last month. When a pro athlete is carrying that kind of wad, there are a few obvious guesses as to where the evening will lead—to a Vegas blackjack table, perhaps, or a nightclub VIP room with bubbly and bimbos. But the 30-year-old Nece had other plans. He stuffed 70 envelopes with $55 each (55 was his jersey number with Detroit last season) and distributed them among the surprised friends and associates he had invited to the restaurant. The money wasn't the gift; the instructions that accompanied it were. Use this cash to help someone, he told them, and encourage those you help to do something kind in turn. Make the gifts multiply. Watch goodness grow.
"It's all based on the belief that a single gesture can be like a seed that develops into something greater," says Nece, who counts Pay It Forward, based on a similar premise, among his favorite films. "We tend to think that as individuals we can't make that big a difference, but we can. One act can lead to another and another. We can inspire each other."
A charitable chain reaction started that night, a campaign that Nece calls the Power of Giving, with the links extending every day, proving that it's not just flu strains and sex tapes that can go viral. One woman, Nina Lopez, converted part of the $55 into quarters and patrolled downtown Tampa, feeding the parking meters on cars that were about to be ticketed and leaving a note for the owners urging them to perform a kindness for someone else. Another acquaintance, Jason Hulfish, used the money to buy art supplies for his friend Bill Correira, a painter and cancer survivor whose medical bills had put a strain on his finances. In turn, Correira now tapes a Power of Giving envelope with $55 to the back of every painting he sells.
People who weren't even a part of the program were inspired to acts of generosity just by hearing about it. After a Tampa TV station did a story about Christina Sanchez, a teenager who had received contributions through the Power of Giving to help with her college expenses, a customer picked up his order at the pizza place where Sanchez worked and left her another envelope with $55.
Some of those who have given or received help have written about the experience on Nece's blog at ryannece.com, the website of the Ryan Nece Foundation, which helps the needy in Tampa and funds college scholarships. "But people have told me three or four times that many stories about what has grown out of this," he says. "It's gone further than I ever imagined. Almost every day brings a story of some new way people have found to give."
It might seem surprising that a little-known, out-of-work linebacker—the 0--16 Lions chose not to re-sign Nece—could inspire such an outpouring of generosity, but his anonymity is part of the appeal. We're used to celebrity athletes writing a huge check for a worthy cause or calling on famous friends for a charity event, but when a journeyman proves that wealth and fame aren't essential, when he reminds us that the grand gesture isn't the only one that has lasting impact, who can ignore that message?
Maybe it's for the best, then, that Nece has never used the famous last name that he's always had at his disposal. His father is Ronnie Lott, the Hall of Fame safety and four-time Super Bowl champ, and if you're wondering why that wasn't mentioned earlier, it's because Nece is the kind of guy who prefers that to be the last thing you learn about him, not the first. Lott and Nece's mother, Cathy, never married, and though he has a close relationship with his father, he uses his mother's name partly to avoid getting any preferential treatment.
Nece didn't ask for his father's help when USC, Lott's alma mater, chose not to offer him a scholarship coming out of Pacific High in San Bernardino, Calif. He went to archrival UCLA instead and became a four-year starter. He didn't try to use his dad's influence to help him find an NFL job when he went undrafted in 2002. He instead made the cut as a free agent in Tampa Bay, where he played for six seasons and again became a starter. He won't ask for Lott's intervention now, when he's trying to keep his career alive. "There's definitely some interest from some teams," he says. "I'm very optimistic."
If he does find a new place to play, there will be lots of grateful people who would be willing to pay Nece's salary if they could, $55 at a time.