We love football, but two 49ers show there’s more

Here’s how public appearances work in the world of professional sports. A player shows up to make a speech or deliver a check or in some other way acknowledge a nonprofit group with which he/she is involved. The athlete’s team promotes the event to local media, hoping they show up and help tell the world that athletes are about more than winning games and making money.

Here’s how the events work for the press. We (occasionally) show up and try to carve out time with the athlete. We ask a few questions about the charity, then strike with subjects more likely to satisfy our readers: contracts, injuries, relationships with coaches and teammates, changes to the team’s system, etc.

That was the plan yesterday when I hit not one but two public appearances. Sometime around 3:30 p.m., 49ers wide receiver Josh Morgan provided opening remarks, then led a mass walk to raise awareness for a group called Year Up. About three hours later, tight end Vernon Davis helped launch Art Impact, a new speaker series that focuses on funding for arts education in San Francisco schools.

I stuck to the plan, obliged with a few polite questions and then dived into football. I have already written up some of the football material. But I wound up highly impressed with both charitable endeavors, and would feel remiss if I didn’t at least provide a quick overview of the programs.

Year Up sounds fantastic. Currently based in six cities, including San Francisco (and soon adding Chicago as No. 7), the 10-year-old organization finds promising but financially challenged young adults ages 18-24, many of whom have tried and failed at college at least once, puts them through an intensive learning process and then places them in internships with corporations like Alibris, Kaiser Permanente and Wells Fargo.

Eighty-seven percent of Year Up’s graduates are placed in full- or part-time jobs within four months of graduation, drawing an average wage of $15 an hour.

Just as impressive as these numbers, I saw a small army of young people at Boeddeker Park on Eddy Street in San Francisco – some current students, some graduates, some staff – all of them happy, confident, vibrant. I talked to Year Up’s national site director, William Lehman, and the SF office’s manager of outreach and admissions, Trevor Hooper (who played safety at Stanford and got, as he put it, a “cup of tea” with the Buffalo Bills in 2007), and they told me some of these kids’ stories would break your heart. Clearly, they are in a better place now.

I can’t wait to find out more about Year Up.

Morgan must have felt the same way. Hooper contacted 49ers publicity manager Lisa Goodwin recently and asked whether any of the players might be interested in getting involved. Morgan sprang into action the minute he discovered what Year Up does.

“I could relate to it so much,” he told me. “I mean, myself, I know I worked very hard to go to college and was blessed to play football. But I know if I didn’t have that opportunity, things might not have come so easily for me, whether it’s finding a job and continuing my education in college and things like that. So I could relate to it a lot. And I had so many family members and so many friends that could have benefited from a program like this.”

Morgan and Davis both are from Washington D.C., both grew up at risk and are less than five months apart in age. They have a lot in common, including their commitment to community service. But the venues at which they found themselves yesterday couldn’t have diverged more.

Boeddeker Park is in the heart of the Tenderloin district. The park itself was an oasis on a bright, sunny day, but you literally had to step around unconscious drunks on the sidewalk to get to the rally. Compare that to the de Young Museum’s Koret Auditorium, site of the Art Impact discussion. It was very sedate after hours, with the plushest auditorium chairs I’ve ever experienced and fine art (some of it Davis’) on stage next to the speakers.

The topic was sobering, though. San Francisco Arts Commission director of cultural affairs Luis Cancel and San Francisco high schools artistic director Susan Stauter painted a picture of their own, one that every middle- and working-class California parent knows all too well: a vision of underfunded schools battling to retain art classes in the face of budget deficits.

Davis was there to attract a crowd, yes, but also to prove that athletes and other celebrities can be art lovers. The tight end told of diving into art during his sophomore year at Maryland, and described how it allows him to express himself. Cancel, who grew up in the South Bronx, had a similar recollection, though his epiphany came in middle school.

Davis said he paints both during the season and in the offseason, often just sitting on his couch after a physical day and brushing whatever comes into his mind while listening to music. He knows he’s fighting against type as a 250-pound would-be Michelangelo.

“In the beginning, (teammates) teased me a little bit, just playfully and casually,” Davis said. “But after a while they didn’t mess with me anymore. But it didn’t really matter. It’s all about what I want to do and how I feel. I know for a simple fact that I’m doing the paintings. I’m doing the work. So I don’t worry about what other people say. It’s all about what I want to do.”

He has funded the Vernon Davis Visual Arts Scholarship, and he donated $5,000 last night before leading the way to a fundraising dinner at Morton’s Steakhouse, where at least 70 people paid $125 a plate for the cause.

The evening at the museum wasn’t all gloomy. After the panelists answered questions, six San Francisco high school students introduced themselves at the podium. Four had their artwork displayed, and it was stunningly good. The seniors were all headed to prestigious art or design colleges on the East Coast.

All is not lost in the world of charitable giving. And guys like Josh Morgan and Vernon Davis are assets in the fight.

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