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County's NFL connection help feed the children (with photo gallery)

PALMETTO — Manatee County's three NFL cornerbacks spent Wednesday morning at IMG Academies, putting themselves through the rigors of an offseason training regimen.

So it was probably a good thing that most of the heavy lifting had been done by the time Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Fabian Washington and Mike Jenkins arrived at a Feed the Children event their charitable foundations put together.

Organizers said people began arriving at the Manatee County Fairgrounds to receive boxes of nonperishable food and personal care items at about 8:30 a.m., 90 minutes before the event was scheduled to begin.

Despite the heat, volunteers in white T-shirts scurried about, helping recipients carry boxes to their cars as inspirational music blared. The majority of three tractor trailers’ worth of goods was gone when the players arrived at about 11:30 a.m. with more than two hours to go, a testament to the need they are trying to meet.

“Beautiful,” said Betty Blue, 72, of Sarasota, who came with her daughter, Gloria Madison and 15-month-old great-grandson Laxavone Parker. “I admire them for what they’re doing. Because you know why? They’re giving back to the community. That’s more important than anything else in the world. Don’t ever forget where you come from.”

About 1,200 area families received vouchers from churches and social service agencies that enabled them to pick up three boxes of goods. The boxes contained oatmeal, pasta, crackers and rice, along with toilet paper, facial tissue and cleaning supplies. The boxes are designed to meet a family’s needs for a week, according to Feed the Children, an Oklahoma-based Christian relief organization.

“It means a lot to me because it's providing for me and my kids,” said Alis Peterson, of Bradenton, who brought her daughter, 2-year-old Vanessa Wortham and eight-month-old Jeremih Louis. “Yeah, that’ll help a lot right now.”

The NFL players — they call themselves Cornerback Connection — organized the event, along with help from Rodgers-Cromartie's church, Shining Light Church of God in Christ in Rubonia. About 70 volunteers, including some from Best Buy and the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranch, turned out to help.

All three players said they spend most of their offseason in Manatee County. They plan to host a free football clinic Friday morning at the new 13th Av Dream Center and the Celebrity Basketball Slam Jam featuring other NFL stars at 5 p.m. Saturday at Manatee Convention Center. Jenkins and Washington have teamed up to create the Franchise Kids Foundation, and Rodgers-Cromartie is the founder of the DRC Foundation.

“Coming up, we had guys like (former NFL player) Peter Warrick do the same thing. We’re just trying to carry it on,” said Jenkins, a 25-year-old Southeast High graduate who plays for the Dallas Cowboys.

“It’s just a blessing to be able to give back to the community and feed people at this time,” said Rodgers-Cromartie, a 24-year-old Lakewood Ranch High graduate, who made the Pro Bowl last season in his second year as an Arizona Cardinal. “For a lot of people, it’s their time of need. Just to be able to come out here and have a crowd like this, it feels good.”

The three players, all first-round draft picks, organized a similar Feed the Children event before Thanksgiving last year at DeSoto Square mall.

But Wednesday’s event was three times larger and came at a time far removed from the holidays, when needs often go unmet.

“This is exceptional because it’s in the middle of the year, when most people aren’t thinking about it. You’ve gotta eat all year,” said the Rev. Roosevelt Watkins of Shining Light Church of God in Christ.

“We just try to do as much as we can,” said Washington, a 27-year-old Bayshore High graduate who plays for the Baltimore Ravens. “Our parents get together and see what we can do in the community. My mom called me and said they set up a Feed the Children thing, and I said I’ll be there.”

Timothy R. Wolfrum, Herald staff, can be reached at 745-7015.

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