Throughout their playing careers, Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Doug Baldwin dedicated their time and resources to making a difference in the community, both in their hometowns and in the Seattle area.
All three men were the Seahawks nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award during their careers, Baldwin in 2013, Avril in 2016 and Bennett in 2017, and all three have continued to give back in their post-playing days.
And over the years, as all three kept running into each other at different events to support worthy causes, it occurred to them that they might be able to do even more if they combined their efforts. With that, Champions of Change was born, a fundraising coalition of Super Bowl winning Seahawks players, supercharging local organizations embedded within their community, offering services for families that champion dignity, empowerment and collaboration.
For the second straight summer, that trio is bringing the Champions of Change Celebrity Basketball Game to Climate Pledge Arena on June 23 to shine a light on and raise money for worthy causes.
"One thing that was really important to us when we were playing here was that we wanted to be active in the community," said Baldwin, who also won the Paul G. Allen Humanitarian Award earlier this year at the 88th annual Seattle Sports Star of the Year Awards, and who in 2018 was one of four nominees for ESPN's Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award. "Seattle has been very welcoming and open to us in terms of bringing us along as part of this community and family. We were presented and blessed with a platform, so we wanted to utilize that to do some good in a community that recognized us as one of their own. As we were doing that, we noticed we were showing up in similar places all the time, so myself, Cliff and Mike B basically said, 'Why don't we do this together?'"
Through last year's Champions of Change All-Star game, Baldwin, Bennett and Avril were able to raise $540,000 that went to benefiting partners. And in addition to raising money, a big goal of Champions of Change is to elevate the platform of grassroots organizations.
"The biggest thing is that each year we want to get better, make a bigger impact, make sure people know and are excited about whatever event it might be that Champions of Change is putting together," Avril said. "But more than anything, continue to keep shining light on all the great organizations that are in our city and our community that are doing some really awesome things. It's all about growing, getting the notoriety, not for us, but more so for the impact that it has on the community."
This year's game, which takes place on June 23 at 7 p.m., will again feature Seahawks Legends and other athletes and celebrities competing on the court, with Baldwin vowing to avenge last summer's loss to the Avril-captained team.
"It didn't go so great last year at the game, because I lost," Baldwin said. "I'm not doing that again, and Cliff knows it."
Among those joining Baldwin, Avril and Bennett on the court are Seahawks Legends Richard Sherman and Jermaine Kearse, former NBA sixth man of the year and Seattle basketball royalty Jamal Crawford, and former Husky basketball standouts Tre Simmons and Will Conroy. Seahawks Legend Marshawn Lynch and Storm All-Star guard Jewell Loyd will coach one team, while two Seattle basketball legends, Sue Bird and Gary Payton, will coach the other team.
In addition to the stars on the court, there will also be some big names in attendance as spectators, including Seahawks Bobby Wagner and Geno Smith, and University of Washington quarterback Michael Penix.
This year's game is sure to provide a lot of fun memories for those in attendance while also raising a lot of money for good causes, including the Family First Community Center in Renton, a joint project between the City of Renton and Baldwin, which will open on June 26. The game will also benefit the Odessa Brown Children's Clinic, the One Love Community Fridge, and Pioneer Human Services.
Baldwin, Avril and Bennett all have causes they support individually, but being able to shine a light on and raise money for local nonprofits such as those listed above was a big reason behind their decision to team up and start Champions of Change.
"What about these other people who are doing so much great work, how do we shine light on them," Bennett said. "How do we not just give them money, but also give them love and spirit, and also give them notoriety so they can continue to do the great work that they do."
In addition to the work being done through Champions of Change, all three Seahawks Legends are also making a difference through their individual efforts.
Baldwin, who has spent the last decade working with the City of Renton to open the Family First Community Center, will see those efforts finally come to fruition this month with the center's grand opening.
"I grew up in a community center back in Pensacola that was like my second home," he said. "It was the place where I was first introduced to sports, where I had mentors and tutors and folks who really breathed life into me to become the man I am today. I wouldn't be standing here before you if it wasn't for those folks in the community center."
Avril, meanwhile, has continued his work to battle Type 2 diabetes and encourage healthy living through nutrition and exercise through his Cliff Avril Family Foundation, and has gotten into real estate with an eye towards helping people build generational wealth, particularly those who historically didn't have that opportunity.
"The reason I started that was because I wanted to be able to help family and friends learn how to invest and create generational wealth through real estate," Avril said. "… That wasn't information that was taught to me or people that look like me. I just think it's important for people to understand the value of real estate."
Bennett, who has called O'ahu home for years—his wife, Pele, is from Hawaii—is studying architecture and design, seeing it as a chance to uplift those usually left out of the equation when it comes to creating the spaces where people live, work and enjoy their free time.
"Space in America has usually been white, so this is an opportunity to design spaces for people of color and think about spaces, not just how we inhabit spaces, but how spaces are connected to our nature and how we can design open spaces," Bennett said. "Moving into architecture, it's a good thing, because it's the same type of discipline as football. You have to really be dedicated, there's a lot of time put into it and a lot of practice. When you go into different practices in life, you have to figure out the process—do you love the process?"
Bennett has traveled the world in part to appreciate how different cultures make use of available resources to create inclusive spaces, and those trips have had a profound effect on him.
"In Africa, I don't see poverty, I see ingenuity," he said. "I see the will to survive, I see the will to design and want a better world. Those things inspire me more than luxury things, it's how people try to survive within the means of their environment."
Bennett sees his role as a former NFL star as one that comes with responsibility, one he hopes to fulfill both with his work in the design and architecture world, and through Champions of Change.
"Being a role model isn't just about selling items, it's about living a certain life of virtue, having principles, having intestinal fortitude to stand up when things get heavy," Bennett said. "For us, connecting and collaborating is the best way to do it… For us, coming together as group of different people who have different ideologies, but share one principle in life, and that's humanity. Finding ways to integrate our thoughts into the community is super important, and finding partners to collaborate with us and understand our mission.
"When I think about building something that has a legacy in Champions of Change, it's about the legacy of love, how we connect with people further, and for other players to look at us and say they want to do something that continues to give."
Seattle celebrities, including several members of the Seahawks 2013 Super Bowl team, play in a Champions of Change basketball game at the Climate Pledge Arena on June 26, 2022. Learn more about Champions of Change here.