Thomas Morstead hosts the 2017 Prom of Champions at The Audubon Aquarium. This year, 190 teenagers attend, all of whom are overcoming cancer.
By Harry Browne
The life of the NFL player is not always easy. Across the globe, millions follow the sport with rapt attention, attending games or watching on television, placing a responsibility on players' shoulders to treat the game with the appropriate reverence. That means a yearlong slog through individual workouts, training camps, and practices — an unyielding effort to stay in peak football condition. Throw in time spent consulting with coaches, learning playbooks, and dissecting film, and a player could hardly be blamed for spending his leisure time recovering and relaxing. However, when the uniforms come off, some players continue their work. Some players, such as New Orleans Saints punter Thomas Morstead, believe their duty is not simply to give the fans what they want on the field, but also to give the community what it needs off the field.
"I feel a certain obligation to help out in the community," said Morstead, who enters his ninth season this year. "They buy the tickets; they come to the games; they love us; they live and die with us. If you have the opportunity to do something and help out that community that is so supportive, you need to do that."
For Morstead, that meant starting his foundation, What You Give Will Grow. The seeds of the organization were planted a decade ago, when Morstead was a redshirt senior at Southern Methodist. In 2008, SMU lured Frank Gansz out of retirement to become its special teams coach. Gansz, a 37-year college and NFL coaching veteran who won Super Bowl XXXIV with the St. Louis Rams, was one of the best coaches a young punter could ask for. Yet, according to Morstead, Gansz's true skill was as a role model.
"He didn't teach me how to punt a football," Morstead recalled. "He taught me how to be a pro in life. He was one of those people that, as time goes on, if you have a little doubt about something, you think, 'what would Frank do in this situation?'…Whenever I was toying around with the idea of starting something, foundation-wise, there was no figuring out what to call it. That was one of the sayings that I loved that Frank used. 'What you give will grow, and what you keep, you lose.'"
Thomas Morstead and his foundation "What You Give Will Grow" and Sal's Sno-balls provide free treats for fans in Metairie on May 2, 2017.
On April 27, 2009, Gansz died, just one day after the Saints selected Morstead in the fifth round of the NFL Draft. However, his mantra of selflessness has lived on through Morstead and WYGWG, leading to a slew of truly amazing endeavors. The foundation focuses primarily on pediatric cancer, working to improve children's quality of life. Young patients are confronted with harrowing circumstances, forcing them into situations far more mature than any child deserves. Through programs such as Game Day Heroes, which brings local pediatric cancer patients to watch Saints and Pelicans games, to race go-karts with Mario Andretti, and to other fun activities, Morstead and the dedicated volunteers at WYGWG provide what the punter refers to as "the Patch Adams approach…letting kids still be kids." The organization also engages directly with hospitals through the Louisiana Child Life Council, which provides resources to hospitals statewide as well as a forum to engage with each other.
"Louisiana is at the bottom of the barrel nationally in child life," Morstead said. "We have 31 child life people from all over the state that all come together and share best practices and what they need. It has been pretty cool because all of these hospitals are competing against each other, and to get them to all get into a room together has been interesting. But, they are all generally not funded or very underfunded, so it is nice for us to leverage our dollars that we raise to get them into the same boat and work together."
This fall, Morstead and WYGWG will be kicking their energies into high gear, setting a lofty fund-raising goal of $150,000. To get there, the organization will rely on a series of events and efforts, including a documentary and an exclusive dinner prepared by chef Emeril Lagasse and served by members of the New Orleans Saints.
"(Child life specialists) are used to making miracles out of nothing, out of pipe cleaners and paper towel rolls," What You Give Will Grow executive director Dennis Lomonaco said. "Coming up with $150,000 is life-changing. It is a massive amount of money."
When the NFL season ends, many players return to their hometowns for the offseason, but not Morstead, who lives in New Orleans year-round. Part of adopting Louisiana as his new home meant lending a hand in its time of need. In August of last year, flooding devastated much of central Louisiana, damaging homes and impacting the lives of thousands. Many of those affected were children, and in response, WYGWG created Team Comeback Kids, a program that collected and distributed school supplies to affected students. The effort raised over a million dollars worth of supplies, giving parents and students one less thing to worry about as they recovered from the disaster.
"Our volunteer base is amazing," Morstead said. "They are clamoring for more. We don't have stuff all the time, so when we do things, they are ready to go and ready to work, and they believe in what we are getting done…I didn't expect a huge movement, and we got that. We were over our heads a little bit. We ended up raising over a million dollars in school supplies. That was really amazing because that proved that people in this area do believe in the authenticity of what we've done and what we are trying to do."
Though the humble Morstead would avoid self-praise, the effort he exerts for each child has not gone unnoticed. He frequently pays unexpected visits to children in the hospital and even makes a point of calling patients on their birthdays. That personal touch can make a real difference to children facing such traumatic conditions.
"We give out free snowballs on GiveNOLA day," Lomonaco said. "There is an hour line to talk to Thomas. People stand in it and when they leave, they feel like they had an actual experience with him, a real conversation. When he sees parents with kids, the first thing he does is to kneel down and talk to the kids. That's the Thomas that I love."
Somehow, Morstead has managed to balance this with one of the most successful punting careers in NFL history. As any Saints fan can easily recall, Morstead, just a rookie at the time, was responsible for one of the most incredible moments in franchise history, perfectly executing a surprise onside kick to open the second half of Super Bowl XLIV. The play, known simply as "Ambush," swung the game's momentum squarely in favor of the Black and Gold, allowing the team to erase a 10–6 deficit and march to a 31–17 victory, bringing the Lombardi Trophy to New Orleans for the first time. Since that magical night in Miami, Morstead has asserted himself as a critical element of the Saints special teams unit, handling kickoffs for his first seven seasons and serving as a holder on field goals and extra points in addition to his regular punting duties. In 2012, he nabbed a spot in the Pro Bowl after a season during which ranked second league-wide in yards per punt (50.1).
Morstead has even managed to kick his way into NFL record books, having seized second place all-time in career gross punting average (47.0) and third in net punting average (41.2). In 2016, Morstead was honored with a spot on the Saints All-50th Team, one of just six then-active players to be so recognized. Even after earning so many accolades, Morstead has shown a commitment to continued improvement; last year, he relinquished his kickoff duties to kicker Wil Lutz in order to focus on his punting abilities, leading to his highest gross punting average since 2012 (48.3). Yet, despite the tireless work he has put in to remain one of the best punters in league history, his charitable fire has never been extinguished. He maintains the Frank Gansz approach to life, giving his all both on and off the gridiron, and has shown no signs of slowing down.
"He kind of still is with me, so it feels like a lot of responsibility," Morstead said. "It keeps the pressure on to do well all of the time. I know that I am attached to him, and that is an awesome thing."
To donate to or volunteer with What You Give Will Grow, visit https://www.wygwg.org/getinvolved/.