Article First Posted On: post-gazette.com/sports/ron-cook/2020/12/19/pittsburgh-steelers-walter-payton-man-of-the-year-award-vance-mcdonald-ron-cook/stories/202012200049
It started several years ago with an overseas mission trip to Haiti.
“The third day there, we’re standing in an orphanage with about 70 kids,” Vance McDonald was saying over the telephone the other day. “They probably were anywhere from 1 ½ years old to 16 years old. All the girls were in one room, the boys in another. One lady was overseeing all of them.
“My wife and I still talk about it. Our hearts were so broken at that moment. It turned us inside out. We looked at each other and said, ‘We have to do something to have an impact on people.’”
McDonald is the Steelers’ nominee this season for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award, the NFL’s most prestigious honor. To win, a player has to be good on the field and even better off the field with his community service.
Maurkice Pouncey was the Steelers’ nominee last season because of his work trying to build a better relationship between police and the minority community. Cam Heyward was nominated three times in the previous four years because of his tireless charity work. Franco Harris, Joe Greene, Lynn Swann and Jerome Bettis are previous Steelers who won the national award.
“Just being nominated means so much more than football,” McDonald said. “It’s so awesome.”
Like the others, McDonald realizes he has a platform as a pro athlete to help others and is thankful football has given him the resources to do it. He has made more than $28 million during his eight-year NFL career, according to spotrac.com.
“My wife and I have never felt like those resources were ours,” McDonald said. “We’re simply ambassadors to give to others in need.”
The McDonalds started their work with Convoy of Hope — a faith-based, nonprofit organization that has a mandate to “help people live with freedom from poverty, disease and hunger” — during his playing days with the San Francisco 49ers. It made sense to McDonald to continue with Convoy of Hope after he was traded to the Steelers in August 2017.
“The Rooneys are so easy to work with,” he said. “They jumped all over it.”
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McDonald’s first big event here happened a year ago at Heinz Field. “Huddle for the Holidays” provided more than 500 people with a hot meal and all of the necessities to make it through the long, cold winter, including shoes, coats and hygiene products. There also were health and wellness screenings and job services.
“We did anything we could to meet their needs,” McDonald said. “It was an amazing night.”
That led to McDonald’s “Trucks of Hope” initiative early this year. He and Ben Roethlisberger delivered food and supplies to one event in New Castle, hometown of Roethlisberger’s wife, Ashley. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic kept McDonald and his teammates from personally passing out food, PPE and cleaning supplies later this year — he tested positive and missed the games against Cincinnati and Jacksonville — but his trucks still managed to serve more than 1,000 families in the Western Pennsylvania region at a time those families really needed it.
“We made it happen,” McDonald said. “People not only need the help. They need to see that people care.”
Now, McDonald wants to help those who are helping others.
McDonald said he and his wife, Kendi, quickly fell in love with Pittsburgh and plan to live the rest of their lives here. “So much so,” McDonald said, “that we bought a 133-acre farm in Ligonier right next to Idlewild Park” in the summer of 2019. “A small taste of heaven on Earth,” he called it, naming it “Hidden Meadow Farm and Retreat.” There is an acre pond that is stocked on the property so dinner can be caught and cooked. There is a chicken coop with 24 chickens that provide fresh eggs daily. There’s even a Jersey cow that gives six gallons of fresh milk every day. “We call her Mara. She’s like a big dog,” McDonald said.
Next summer, the McDonalds will welcome church people, caregivers, counselors and anyone else who is helping those less fortunate onto their property. The idea is to give those people a chance to pause briefly from the pressures of their calling and hit the reset button so they can go back out and do even better work.
“You hear so many stories of people doing amazing things,” McDonald said. “I know they hate to take time for themselves. They see that as being selfish. But their work can be so overwhelming. They think only of others and forget about themselves. ‘I’ve got to give. I’ve got to give. I’ve got to give.’ They end up putting themselves in an unhealthy place. Their relationships with their spouse and kids can suffer. You hear so many say, ‘If I only had a little break.’ If they can just take a little time to refresh, they can leave ready to tackle any problem. That’s what we want to provide for them on the farm.”
McDonald uses his two-hour daily roundtrip drive between Ligonier and Pittsburgh to do some of his best thinking. He said he clears his head after a bad practice or a bad game so “I can be a better husband and father when I walk in the door.” He and Kendi have three children — Coman, 4; Ken Marie, 2; and Karse, 1.
“I’m just a wannabe minister,” McDonald said. “I had plans to go to a seminary, but it didn’t happen. I’ve had no professional training. I’m not certified. But I’ve always felt this calling to help others. My wife feels the same way.
“That’s our ministry.”
That’s also Walter Payton award-worthy.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter@RonCookPG. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Joe” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
First Published December 19, 2020, 5:00am