A photo from Special Olympics Southern California honoring LA Rams punter Johnny Hekker (center). Photo: @SOSoCal
A photo from Special Olympics Southern California honoring LA Rams punter Johnny Hekker (center). Photo: @SOSoCal

The fight against slavery and human trafficking will get a big boost Sunday as the Los Angeles Rams will honor punter Johnny Hekker at the game against the Atlanta Falcons.

Hekker is being named the team’s 2016 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year for civic leadership in his community.

Hekker will receive the right to make a $50,000 donation, which he is directing to The Grace Network, the organization founded by his brother-in-law Chris Stambaugh in 2009 to combat human slavery trafficking.

Stambaugh will receive the check during a pregame ceremony on the field of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as part of what the team has designated as its Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Game. The check will be presented by Elise Buik, the president and CEO of United Way of Greater Los Angeles.

An additional $50,000 will be donated in Hekker’s name to help fund Character Playbook in Los Angeles, the NFL and United Way’s digital education program that trains students on how to cultivate and maintain healthy relationships during middle school.

The Rams and United Way of Greater Los Angeles began Character Playbook in the Los Angeles area earlier this year at the Santee Education Complex, located south of downtown Los Angeles.

An additional $25,000 will be donated to the charity of choice of the 32 team Man of the Year nominees whose hashtag generates the most mentions. Hekker’s hashtag is #HekkerWPMOYChallenge.

Funding for the donations comes from the NFL Foundation, the league’s nonprofit organization which seeks to support the health, safety and wellness of athletes, youth football and the communities supporting the sport; the insurance and financial services firm Nationwide; and United Way Worldwide, which describes itself as the world’s largest privately funded nonprofit organization, seeking to improve the health, education and financial stability of every person in the community.

Hekker was selected as the team’s nominee for the leaguewide award for his participation in such events as the Rams Play 60 Field Day, NFL Draft Party and the Taste of the NFL.

He is the team’s representative for Waterboys, an initiative founded by former teammate Chris Long which seeks to install wells to provide clean, accessible drinking water to rural communities in East Africa.

Waterboys has funded 14 wells. Its goal is to install 32, representing each of the 32 NFL teams. Each well costs $45,000 to install, with $13,359 raised for the Rams well, according to Waterboys.

“There are so many things we take for granted living in an established, First World country,” Hekker said. “To help other people experience those basic luxuries is a rewarding thing to be a part of.”

When the Rams were based in St. Louis, Hekker served was state ambassador for Special Olympics Illinois, following his father’s work with adults with developmental disorders.

Hekker was a board member of the St. Louis-based nonprofit organization Team Activities for Special Kids that offers year-round instructional sports programs providing athletic and social opportunities to children with special needs. Hekker made several visits to play with the children and help build their self-esteem.

He signed with the Rams as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2012 out of Oregon State. He set the NFL record for single-season net punting average in 2013 with a 44.2-yard average and was selected for the Pro Bowl.

Hekker received his second Pro Bowl selection in 2015, when he led the league with a 43.7-yard net punting average.

And Hekker leads the league with a 45.8-yard net punting average.

“The Rams and the Los Angeles community are fortunate to have Johnny Hekker as part of our collective team,” said Molly Higgins, the Rams vice president of community affairs and engagement.

“Johnny embodies everything that you want in a player both on and off the field. As a professional athlete, he truly appreciates the platform he has to positively impact the community and the lives of others.”

The Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award recognizes an NFL player for his excellence on and off the field. The award was established in 1970 and renamed in 1999 after the late Hall of Fame Chicago Bears running back, Walter Payton, is considered the league’s most prestigious honor.

Three of the 32 team nominees will be selected as finalists for the leaguewide award, which will be announced Feb. 4.

Baseball Hall of Fame member Tommy Lasorda will be recognized atop the Peristyle steps to help mark the start of the game. Lasorda pitched for the Pacific Coast League’s Los Angeles Angels in 1957, who played at the since- demolished Wrigley Field at 42nd Street and Avalon Boulevard, a mile-and-a-half southwest of the Coliseum.

Pop, rhythm and blues and electropop singer-songwriter Bebe Rexha will sing the national anthem and at halftime.

The Rams will salute their career passing yardage leader, Jim Everett, on the field during the third quarter. Everett passed for 23,758 yards from 1986-93 when the Rams were based at Anaheim Stadium.

Fans can donate unwrapped toys to the CHiPs For Kids Drive by the Metro Rail stop or inside the Rams Fan Fest. Toys from Mattel will be sold at the Fan Fest to donate before the game.

All gates will open at 11:30 a.m. for the 1:25 p.m. game. Gates 1 and 28 will open at 10:30 a.m. for fans wishing to visit the Corona Extra Beach House or Vivid Seats VIP Tailgate.

The Rams (4-8) enter the game with a three-game losing streak, seven losses in their last eight games and last in the league in scoring, averaging 15 points per game.

A loss would be the 165th in coach Jeff Fisher’s career, tying him with Dan Reeves for the most in NFL history.

“I actually don’t look at that,” Fisher said on Monday. “I’ve had a few wins in my career, as well. I’ve also been able to be very, very fortunate and have a long career. You can look at it as is the glass half full or half empty — I look at it as half full. I’m just honored that I still have an opportunity to coach in this league.”

Fisher has 173 victories, 11th all time, while one game he coached ended in a tie. Fisher has coached 338 games, eighth all time, 19 fewer than Reeves.

The Falcons (7-5) have lost two of their last three games but are first in the league in scoring, averaging 32.2 points per game.

Atlanta has three players with ties to the Los Angeles area on their 53- player roster — Chris Chester, who has started all 12 games at right guard; rookie reserve tight end Joshua Perkins, who has played the last four games, but not caught a pass, after being inactive for the first eight; and offensive tackle Kevin Graf, who was promoted from the practice squad on Tuesday.

Chester is in 12th season in the league after playing at Tustin High School and the University of Tennessee; Perkins played at Gahr High in Cerritos and the University of Washington; Graf at Agoura High and USC.

–City News Service

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