Brandon McManus was speaking at his old elementary school in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, and in the assembly sat a kid with good reason to hang onto every word. Dominic Zaffino was a 10-year-old in the middle of a three-and-a-half-year blur of chemotherapy treatments, and one of millions of American students annually victimized by bullies in their midst.
McManus, the Denver Broncos kicker, was telling the gathered girls and boys to be proud of who they are, and to stand up for themselves and others by reporting mistreatment to parents, teachers and guidance counselors. Don't ever be afraid to speak out, the kicker told them, and there was young Dominic thinking to himself, "This is great. I think this is good advice. This really makes me want to do something."
So he did something. Not long after McManus' talk last spring, the boy decided he'd had enough of classmates taunting him for being short. If the bullies didn't know the chemo treatments for his leukemia had stunted his growth, well, he was going to tell them.
"To everyone that calls me short," he posted on his Instagram account, "You know I may be short but that's better than being dead. ... I had cancer (if you haven't found out it's DEADLY). I like who I am and I am very lucky to still be living. ...You don't have to be tall to win. I could be tall but God slowed down my growth for me to be the best person I can become. Let that sink in and think of this before you call someone short."
Dominic cried softly to his mother that night, uncertain of the potential consequences he might face the next morning. But over time, the damnedest things happened. His post went viral, and the bullies started apologizing to him one by one. Soon enough, kids from all over the United States and in faraway places such as Australia and Spain were messaging Dominic through Instagram asking for advice in dealing with their own personal crises.
"I told them, 'Don't be violent, and don't use curse words because that would make the situation worse and can get you in trouble,'" Dominic recalled by phone. "I told them that you have to stand up for yourself, and be the best person you can be and don't let them get you down. A lot of the kids later thanked me for helping them so much."
And just like that, Dominic evolved from victim to adviser to advocate. He was declared cancer-free in August, another testament to his uncommon strength, and now, as an 11-year-old, he spends his time persuading fellow sixth-graders to take an anti-bullying oath.
"As a parent, you want to protect your child from everything," Dominic's mother, Gemma, said, "and it was heartbreaking to see your son battle cancer, going to the hospital for intravenous treatments and taking pills every day for three-and-a-half years, and still having to come home upset over what kids were saying to him. We kept reassuring him that he's absolutely normal, and that the people who are his true friends will love him for who he is. But it took someone of Brandon's stature for it to sink in for Dominic to feel it would be OK.
"I think Dominic would still be holding all of this in if it wasn't for what Brandon said. His confidence today is unbelievable compared to where it was a year ago."
This is the expanding legacy Brandon McManus carries into his Super Bowl 50 matchup with the Carolina Panthers -- the boys and girls he has comforted when they've felt so vulnerable and alone. He is 24 going on 60. He is an old soul who understands that a field goal attempt to win the Super Bowl, or to lose it, can't possibly be the measure of a man who found a calling in the empowerment of children in dire need.
McManus' work started in a partnership with Tom Peterson, a former hip-hop music manager involved with the groundbreaking group N.W.A., Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, Ice-T, you name it. Peterson's son, Justin, was taking private kicking lessons from McManus when Peterson told the undrafted Temple star about a couple of friends whose kids were being bullied, and asked him to aid the cause of eradicating such behavior from hallways, bathrooms and gyms everywhere.
McManus didn't hesitate. As a high school student, he was a self-described "chameleon" who blended into different corners of his classrooms. He was a star athlete, but also a serious student. "I went to Temple for biology/pre-med," he said the other day by phone, "so I always enjoyed hanging out with the so-called nerds. I was able to take things from each group and culture and learn from them. And I grew up learning from two outstanding parents who taught me right from wrong."
So together, Peterson and McManus formed the non-profit Anti Bully Squad in Stanhope, N.J. It was a natural spinoff for the 43-year-old Peterson, who ran a group promoting youth character awareness through music. "I had Ice-T do stuff for me; the guy wrote a song called 'Cop Killer' and here he was promoting our character awareness organization," he said. "My son reminds me of that all the time."
McManus had won a national community service award at Temple, but his time was precious: He was focused on trying to become an established kicker in the NFL, in which one wayward swing of the foot can get a man fired. "A lot of athletes and celebrities don't do much with their organizations, other than lend their names," Peterson said. "But Brandon is hands-on with everything. He's amazing."
And available. McManus visits with impacted children, sends them video statements of encouragement, organizes and attends charity events, and runs a football camp in the name of the Anti Bully Squad. "There are families out there with kids who are bullied so badly they don't know what to do," Peterson said. "We're trying to reach them. ... Sometimes after we speak at assemblies, a kid will come up to us and say, 'Thank you, I think you might've just saved my life.' Families approach us and say, 'You guys have no idea how much you helped us.' "
Season Hillery, mother of five in Northglenn, Colo., could go on for days about how much McManus has helped her and her middle child. While confronting a lung disease that will require a double transplant, she was also dealing with the vile reality that neighbors were verbally harassing her nine-year-old son, Ryder, who has Down syndrome.
McManus heard of the boy's plight while walking the runway at a fashion show event last season for Down syndrome children. The people next door who were mocking Ryder included an adult teacher, believe it or not, and Hillery said a call to the police was met with the response that there was little they could do.
"That was a big blow," Hillery said. "We had to tell our son it was OK for people to make fun of him."
McManus decided he should head over to Ryder Hillery's house and play football with him in the front yard, in his orange Broncos jersey, in full view of the neighbors. "To try to silently shut them up," the kicker said, "to prove how capable kids with Down syndrome are."
He stayed for two hours. Nearly every day since, Ryder has watched an iPad video of the catch he had with McManus, who has remained in touch with the family. The kicker sent Season a care package while she was receiving treatment for her lung disease. He called one of Ryder's brothers in the hospital after he was struck and injured by a car.
"It's hard to put into words how Brandon's made our family feel," Season Hillery said. "It's the worst feeling in the world when you think you can't protect your children from something awful. Nobody told Brandon he had to do this; he volunteered out of the goodness of his heart. Now every time the Broncos play, there's Ryder cheering for Brandon on TV."
Some 7,000 miles away from his Virginia home, Stephen Allen does the same thing -- at least when he can find a feed of Denver's games in Bahrain. Allen, who has served in the U.S. Navy for nearly 20 years, happened to be a Broncos fan while growing up in New Jersey, and he got so excited over Tim Tebow's overtime touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas to beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs four years ago that he broke his ankle jumping up and down.
"I lay on the floor," Allen recalled by phone from Bahrain, "half-screaming in pain, half-screaming that the Broncos won."
As a petty officer, first class on the USS Whirlwind, Allen wasn't able to offer face-to-face support to his 10-year-old daughter, Sadie, who was being teased and taunted and physically pushed out of her seat on her bus. He reached out to Peterson, whom he'd known for years, and Peterson reached out to McManus, who sent a video message of reassurance to Sadie and invited her to take the Anti Bully Squad oath her father had just taken, and to wear the organization's bracelet her father had just received. The kicker reminded Sadie that she is the daughter of "a true hero."
The girl cried when she saw the video. "Oh my God," Sadie said, "people really care." Her mother, Jenn, saw her confidence and grades improve. Some of the bullying continued, Jenn Allen said, but Sadie grew stronger against the tide.
"There had been times when my daughter didn't want to get up and go to school," Stephen Allen said. "But her confidence has grown tenfold. She knows how to deal with it now. She knows it isn't wrong to say something to us, that she won't get in trouble if she's telling people what's going on."
McManus had sent Facebook messages to Sadie's father, who couldn't believe he was communicating with the kicker of his cherished childhood team. Stephen Allen, 44, said that the average age on the USS Whirlwind is about McManus' age, and that he's impressed a professional athlete who's so young could embrace such a selfless world view.
Allen is hoping to find a TV in Manama, Bahrain, that will start showing Super Bowl 50 at 2:30 a.m. local time. "It's a great feeling," Allen said, "knowing that Sadie will be one of a lot of people giving Brandon the strength to go out in that game and do what he does."
McManus wants to make that point clear, too: He gets out of this more than he puts into it. The rewards of bettering a kid's life, of watching him or her overcome, are out there on the field with him as he lines up a kick.
"You hear horror stories on the news of young kids killing themselves after getting bullied at school," McManus said. "To be able to give someone guidance, someone to talk to, is much bigger to me than kicking a winning field goal. There's always going to be another game, so impacting a kid or a family always gives me my most rewarding smile."
This is hardly an easy fight to win in the age of social media. "Now there are a lot more ways for kids to attack other kids," McManus said. To help combat cyber bullying and to supplement his organization's web site, antibullysquad.org, McManus has established another site, texttoreport.com, for victims or witnesses to report an incident if they prefer to remain anonymous.
The kicker isn't the first Super Bowl participant to contribute to the cause. Lee Rouson, two-time champion with Bill Parcells' New York Giants, works with Peterson and McManus to educate children and parents on the ills of bullying. Rouson also talks to teams, churches and corporations, and often brings up the time he stepped on a bus before the old Blue-Gray college all-star game in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1984 and sat next to an unfamiliar face.
"Who are you?" Rouson asked.
"I am the best wide receiver in the NFL," the young man answered. "My name is Jerry Rice. I'm from Mississippi."
Through his work with Peterson and McManus, and with an Indianapolis-based group, SportsWorld, that inspires students to make positive life choices, Rouson reminds kids that Rice wasn't even in the NFL at the time, and uses the anecdote to implore them to establish their own identities and goals at an early age.
"You look at someone like Brandon," Rouson said, "and you see a guy with an appetite to help others when so many people that age are self-centered. Brandon McManus is an exceptional dude, and he was never trying to be anyone else. He established how he was going to live his life at a very young age."
McManus worked as a United States Golf Association intern last summer at the U.S. Women's Open in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in part because he wants to run a Super Bowl one day. Yes, run it. As a second career, he wants to be in charge of operations for the biggest event in American sports.
But he would like to win a Super Bowl first. McManus was 5-for-5 on field goal attempts in the 23-16 playoff victory over Pittsburgh, including a 51-yarder, and he was perfect in the 20-18 AFC Championship Game victory over New England (2-for-2 on field goals, including a 52-yarder, and 2-for-2 on extra points) on a day when the great Stephen Gostkowski was not.
On the field and off, McManus says he has drawn so much from the resilience of the kids he has counseled. He visited with Dominic Zaffino at a kickball fundraiser last summer, and told those in attendance that the boy had stood up to the bullies with the same courage he showed by standing up to cancer.
What did McManus' words and presence mean, dating to his appearance at Dominic's elementary school? "It really helped me out," Dominic said over the phone. "I really noticed it in baseball last year. Usually I don't hit so hard, and after Brandon spoke, I just felt stronger. We had one practice and I just kept nailing them all the way out there."
The Zaffinos are fans of the Philadelphia Eagles, who were kind enough to host Dominic for a practice. "But there's no question now we are rooting for the Broncos," Gemma Zaffino said.
Maybe Brandon McManus will win Super Bowl 50 with a strike down the middle, and maybe he will lose it with a hook or a fade. Either way, his biggest fans have spoken. The kicker might have one of the loneliest jobs in football, but he won't be out there alone.