Vilma was readying his team for its historic run to the Super Bowl when the earthquake struck. Despite an intense schedule of training and preparation for the playoffs, Vilma went to the NFL and volunteered his time to film public service commercials focused on aiding the earthquake's victims. The ads asked fans to donate $10 to the effort through text messages. "It was a great program," Vilma says. "Sometimes people can feel what they give would never be enough, so they don't give. By finding a reasonable amount and getting a lot of people to donate, it can make a huge difference."

After the Super Bowl victory, Vilma started his own foundation to help rebuild schools and hospitals. He chose to wait several months before launching the foundation so he could get a clearer idea of where the funds should be directed. "When tragedy strikes, it's chaos at the scene," Vilma explains. "The TV news crews are there, the politicians are there, and everyone is on the scene, including people who are up to no good. After the earthquake, you had a lot of people raising money that never went to the right causes. They took advantage of people wanting to give. As an athlete, you always have to be extremely careful of who you do business with. I wanted to wait for things to settle. Once everyone went on to the next disaster, you see who is left. Most likely, those are the people you are going to work with."

While athletes can donate money for every home run hit or sack they record, many of them realize they can leverage their fame to inspire others to give far more than they could ever give themselves. Perhaps no athlete understands that better than Dwight Howard, the All-Star center for the NBA's Orlando Magic.

While some athletes spent the summer training and catching up on the newest video games, Howard held basketball clinics around the world-including China, India and Haiti-as a focal point of his fundraising efforts.

Howard and his former Orlando Magic teammate, Adonal Foyle, spent several days in Haiti meeting with the local kids and trying to help them find hope in a situation filled with despair. "It wasn't even about the money," Howard says. "It was about spending time with people and letting them know that there are people in America and around the world who still care. Basketball has opened up a lot of doors for me to play overseas and have an impact on people's lives. My goal is to change people's lives-to be a role model to kids everywhere."

It's a goal that many athletes share, which is why it has become more common to see professional athletes at charity events around the country. They understand the power they have to inspire others. They also understand the currency that time with them can create. An auction of a "once-in-a-lifetime" meeting with an athlete or an autographed item, for example, can often lead to the raising of substantial sums of money.

As the NFL, NBA and NHL prepare for possible labor unrest and potential lockouts, it's inevitable that stories will be written about "greedy" athletes who are overpaid and don't appreciate what they have. Media and fans will demonize athletes for strangling the goose that lays the golden eggs. In some instances, it may be true. But for many members of the professional athlete community, it could not be farther from the truth. The next time you go to a black-tie ball and see a boxer dressed in a suit playfully shadowboxing with kids, you will understand why perception does not always equal reality.

Michael Dolan is editor-in-chief of Athletes Quarterly magazine.

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