In this holiday season — especially the day after Christmas, once all the gifts are unboxed and laid out and it became clear that Aunt Cheapo spent way less on your acrylic scarf than you did on her cashmere — we are supposed to reflect and celebrate the highest form of giving, to do it without expecting anything in return.
In Buddhism, it’s called “Dana” — giving without attachment, expecting nothing in return.
It’s explicit in the Bible, Luke 6:35 — “Help and give without expecting a return.”
The Jewish tradition of tzedakah speaks to giving as a form of social justice.
In Islam, “infaq” is giving without expecting reward or return.
But I’m going to cheat a little bit. Because I want to celebrate the gift that hundreds of people made to a group of boys they’ve never met, probably never heard of — and explain how much good it did.
“It’s one of the best Christmas presents ever,” said Devin Cummings, a 12-year-old running back for the DMV Knights Gold Boyz, the suburban Maryland team that made it to the Super Bowl of kid football in Florida this month.
The team is solid, consistently winning regional championships year after year, as its players have advanced up the age brackets since they were 6 years old. They know they’ve got the skills — they’ve hit the dinger twice now, advancing to the national championships in Florida.
But they all come from a working-class part of one of America’s wealthiest regions. And making it big makes everyone worry.
“Many of our parents really cannot afford to pay for their child to attend. There are several single moms and dads on our team,” Eboni Riddick, the head team mom, said when we connected in November. “We have parents who are still trying to get back to work due to the pandemic or just really can’t afford for them and their child to attend nationals.”
So I went to one of their practices, met the fierce kids who practiced in the dark and cold on a muddy field knowing that they still had homework to stare down that night, and wrote their story.
Hundreds of donors raised more than $35,000 for the team. They got a $440 chunk from the Hill Havurah Congregation, a $25 donation from another “football mom,” scores of anonymous gifts and plenty of encouragement.
“I know what being on a team, shooting for a goal, and being surrounded by great role models can do for the course of your life,” wrote George Kirchbaum, along with his $50 donation on the team’s GoFundMe page. “The experience of going on this trip will help these kids dream, as well as do something fun!”
That’s exactly what happened.
“Thank you to each and every donor who made it possible for every athlete and their family to make it to nationals,” Riddick said. The donations allowed them to travel together, stay close to each other and even get to exhale at an amusement park, she said.
“I went on rides and stuff,” said Khalif James, 12, a wide receiver and linebacker on the team who had to sit out their last trip to Florida with a broken collarbone. “We messed with some alligators.”
But the coaches have done their work. When I saw them practice 17 days before they left, coach Chris Coates boomed at them: “It’s not a vacation. It’s a business trip.”
And each kid who go-karted and goofed around in Florida also learned valuable lessons.
“It was business,” Khalif said, before he opened up about the fun parts. “I had a one-handed catch.”
Josiah Outten came back from Florida with a lot of respect for the football everyone else is playing.
“To be able to play at this level was the biggest gift,” said the 11-year old, who seems 18 when he’s talking.
They lost their first game, but won the other two.
His teammate Kingston Sloley was circumspect about the loss.
“They were more competitive, the other teams,” Kingston, 12, said. “It’s always fun to play a team that is going to be challenging.”
The biggest difference between the Gold Boyz and the other teams?
“Probably speed and size,” Kingston said. “That big kid, number 22, He was wide and he could run. He was really hard to tackle.”
But Kingston also noticed the other kids sounded different. “All these kids from out-of-state were around us,” he said. “And we heard all these different accents.”
The trip was exciting and stimulating. They each told me — unbidden — the things the trip inspired them to work on:
“Speed. And just to work harder.”
“My wish is to just play my game.”
And most of them didn’t have much in the way of Christmas lists when I asked: “Maybe some new shoulder pads. Mine are getting a little small,” one said.
Their gift was the trip, the bonding, the experience and the inspiration that came with it. That’s all those who gave a little to lift them hoped would happen.
And those hopes are not unholy.