Photo credit: gostanford.com
By Ana Kieu
Just days after buying his first car from money earned bussing tables, Connor Wedington headed north.
The 16-year-old football star at Sumner (Wash.) High School already put aside 10 percent of his earnings for charitable causes. On this day, Wedington took that money and bought $10 gift cards from Subway.
There were areas in Seattle the Wedingtons frequented in an attempt to look for ways to help whomever might need it. Those areas included The Jungle, west of Beacon Hill, known for its homeless encampments. Connor parked, got out of his car, and sought those who could use a meal.
Maybe he was naive for such a task. For as he turned into an alley, Connor interrupted a heroin addict just as he plunged a needle into his veins. As the man locked eyes with Wedington, the needle dangled from his arm.
Wedington turned around and hurriedly reversed his steps. When he returned to the street, he closed his eyes, took two deep breaths, and resumed his walk.
“It shook me,” Wedington said.
Wedington knew what life on the streets was like, but it was one thing to know, and another to see.
That moment never escaped Wedington’s thoughts. And, last spring, as he and friend Zaylan Jacobsen mobilized a homeless outreach from Stanford into weekly visits into San Francisco’s Tenderloin, Wedington recalled that moment as he prepared his teams for what they might encounter.
“This is what you’re getting into,“ Wedington said.
“I know,” they said.
“When you actually see it, it’s different,” Wedington cautioned.
Wedington is a junior wide receiver on the Cardinal football team and is majoring in science, technology, and society with a focus on innovation and organization. He was recognized among 22 named to the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, an honor for those who have made an impact in their communities. He has no unrealistic notion about the range of his impact, but the nonprofit organization, that he and Jacobsen created (and hope to continue) Hope Given By gave many temporary comfort.
Each winter quarter weekend when Wedington was freed of football duties, Hope Given By was brought to life by groups of Stanford students who ventured into places like shoot-up zones — the safe injection sites for drug users, where many of the homeless congregate.
With clothes and shoes donated by teammates and other students — and socks donated by a corporate partner –Wedington led them into a new world. The vital mission of Hope Given By was not the giving itself, but the creation of new relationships.
“We wanted something different about us,” Wedington said. “We would try to talk to them. I saw the value in authentic conversations.”
Connor and his older brother, Triston, always shared a heart for others.
“Christ is the example,” said his father Donovan Wedington. “He’s always been the example. There’s no one who’s ever done it better. Ever. And the boys know that.” Donovan purposefully taught his sons selflessness as a way to right his father’s past mistakes. An army brat, Donovan came from what he described as “trauma.”
Without a foundation of support, Donovan failed the second grade and felt like he was dumb.
“No one ever tried to help me,” Donovan said. “At all. No one. Even my family.”
“I started making my friends more important than school. I was more concerned about popularity and being cool, which you turn to if you don’t feel smart. There is nothing worse than feeling stupid. Nothing.”
Donovan was a good athlete who started on football teams. But because he moved so often — five elementary schools and three high schools — he never fully learned playbooks, meshed with his teammates, or met his potential.
After a marriage to Jenny and the birth of their two sons, Donovan fell into a partying lifestyle and left the family for more than a year. When he returned, his marriage had dissolved, but he was committed to a life without drugs and alcohol. He has been sober since 2002.
Donovan’s past, however, has determined his sons’ futures in education, athletics, and selflessness. All those things were deprived of him to some degree, but he has bestowed with passion on his sons. Both were placed in Kumon, a Japanese-influenced after-school math and reading program, and soon, they were advanced in math and trained to be great athletes. They’ve lived clean lifestyles and place faith as one of their highest priorities.
Donovan set the example by dropping what he was doing to help others. They routinely stopped on the side of the road to fix flat tires for strangers or bought ice cream for kids who couldn’t afford it on hot summer days.
“There’s nothing uglier than having a lot of stuff, and having nothing in your heart,” Donovan said.
When Connor was five, the family was in North Carolina on their way south to Myrtle Beach when an ambulance pulled into the roadway and collided with a passenger car, causing it to flip three times before resting on its side.
Donovan pulled over, and ran across the street while shouting instructions to bystanders, like “Go to that McDonald’s and grab a fire extinguisher!” Flames appeared inside the car. Two women inside were unconscious.
“Who’s got a knife?” Donovan shouted.
Donovan cut the women from out of their seatbelts and kicked the front windshield in an effort to break it and pull them out. When that didn’t work, Donovan shattered the side upward-facing window and yanked out the glass, cutting his hand and arm badly, and pulled the passengers to safety, as the flames were extinguished.
Triston remembers, “There were people trying to get his name, but he didn’t want any part of that. He didn’t want the attention. That was something that really stood out to me.” Donovan’s actions made a big impression on Connor, who watched it unfold.
“Seeing my dad going out of his way to help other people definitely influenced me,” Connor said.
How can I judge someone on their behavior when I’m not living the life that they’ve lived. How would I know that I wouldn’t do the same thing if I lived the exact same life and had the same things happen to me?
Donovan took every opportunity to play with his growing boys. They went to parks, often in the inner city, to play the “bear” game. He began as the “bear” and each kid tagged would join him as a bear until everyone was caught.
The Wedingtons encouraged every kid on the playground to participate, especially ones they didn’t know. Soon, perhaps 30 kids — of different races and backgrounds — were running and laughing, all because one family brought them together.
Donovan said the “bear” game may have developed the elusiveness that Connor shows on the field today. Whatever the cause, both Triston and Connor took to football immediately. Triston was the leader and Connor always followed along, always the youngest trying to keep up. And Donovan, not wanting them to waste their talent as he did his own, signed them up for camps and clinics and hired a trainer for additional coaching when they were in high school.
“We would wake up at 4:30 in the morning and get a workout session on the field and in the gym before school,” said Connor, who began this routine in ninth grade. “That was a test from my dad. Do you want to be great? I’ll give you an opportunity to be great. Let’s see how you react.” For inspiration, Connor and Triston looked to USC star Reggie Bush. They watched his videos endlessly, often before games. That’s why Connor, who played running back throughout high school, always wore No. 5. That was Bush’s number with the Trojans.
They played together one season at Sumner, when Connor was a sophomore and Triston a senior. Triston went on to play receiver at Central Washington, an NCAA Division II school, and returned for as many Friday nights as possible to watch Connor light up his opponents and edit the video his father shot into highlight tapes.
Triston has two favorite plays. In one, Connor caught a screen pass, and weaved 60 yards through the defense for a touchdown, and did it again on the next play after the first was nullified by penalty.
Against Auburn Mountainview, Wedington took a kickoff on his own 14-yard line, found room down the right sideline, cut back at the opponent’s 25, shook a couple of defenders and dragged another five yards as a section of Connor’s jersey was ripped away from behind.
“I was freaking out,” Triston said. “That was crazy.”
Triston still has Connor’s tattered jersey from that game framed on a wall.
Wedington committed to Washington, but changed his mind after being accepted to Stanford. He broke the news in a unique way with a snowboarding video. As he caught some big air, “Stanford Cardinal” was revealed on the bottom of his board.
“Why would you say no to Stanford?” Donovan wondered. “There’s no way. When you get to be my age, you’ll be thinking about it a lot. What if? Don’t go through life with regret.”
Wedington made a splash in his debut against Rice in Australia with a one-handed grab on a pass from Keller Chryst. He was used mainly out of the slot as a freshman and missed most of his sophomore year to injury before being moved permanently to receiver, which best utilizes his hands and his ability to evade tacklers in space.
Oregon State found out when Wedington returned a kickoff 43 yards to set up Jet Toner’s game-winning field goal with one second left in a 31-28 victory in Corvallis on September 28. Such anticipation when Wedington gets the ball. It’s hard to know what will happen next — a cutback, reverse field, change of speed, acceleration? It’s what makes Wedington such a threat.
A crowd cheered his achievements on the field, but likely had no idea of the other side of Connor Wedington.
Zaylan Jacobsen, a close friend of Connor’s since their freshman year at Sumner, came to Stanford for a visit last winter. He and Connor shared the same leadership classes under a mentor named John Norland. The notion of aiding the homeless came from those years along with encouragement from Norland and one another. The friends thought alike.
They loved helping others and when Jacobsen told Connor about taking a homeless person to lunch and talking for three hours, Connor wondered, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
“That’s cool,” Connor recalled. “So I tried it and saw the real value in authentic conversations — how having one conversation with one person is more impactful than giving 15 gift cards to 15 people.”
Jacobsen spent nights on the streets in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, to understand the feeling of being homeless. He conceived Hope Given By, and the thought of starting such a venture gnawed on him so much that he left Babson College in Massachusetts. It was only a one-man dream at the time.
“My only plan was to start some kind of nonprofit,” Jacobsen said. “I decided to live out of my car for a couple of days to see Connor. Being a good friend, he embraced the project and helped pull it all together. I had the idea, but I credit him for making it happen.” Wedington placed donation boxes in the locker room and rallied support from his dorm. Room 322 looked like a storage unit with all the clothes classmates left. The key was securing a partnership with a sock company, Bombas, which provided hundreds of pairs of socks for distribution.
The next step was scouting San Francisco. For Connor and Zaylan, it was daunting.
“Seattle has a pretty big homeless population, but I’ve never seen anything like San Francisco,” Wedington said.
Once they mapped out a plan with the best routes, they embarked with a group of four. Each week, the numbers grew, eventually to as many as 30. Teammates Osiris St. Brown, Donald Stewart, Brycen Tremayne, and Michael Wilson were regulars.
As the weeks went by, the faces of the homeless became more familiar. One woman ran across the street to greet Connor with a hug upon seeing him. The stories they heard were heartbreaking.
“There are people who said this is something they wanted to do, and there are people who said this is something they didn’t want to do,” Wedington said. “It’s definitely something a lot of people don’t understand, myself included.”
“Multiple people told me they first became homeless after being brought into sex trafficking. Pimps injected them with heroin, and then after they got done with their business, they were thrown into the streets. They already were addicted, and then they’re in this cycle. How can I fault them for that?”
The reactions — especially from first-time volunteers — were unique as they processed their experiences. On the late-afternoon rides back to campus, some laughed, some cried, while others stared into space.
“I remember doing the same exact thing,” Wedington said. “Some wouldn’t say a word the whole ride. I was like, ‘You good?’ But those are realization moments. They’re important to have, because those give you another perspective to look at your life.”
Wedington realized that he cannot go into a place like the Tenderloin and tell people what to do, even as his understanding of the aftermath grows with each visit.
“How can I judge someone on their behavior when I’m not living the life that they’ve lived,” Wedington said. “Even if it was their choice to go in and do heroin for the first time, who knows what factors led up to that. How would I know that I wouldn’t do the same thing if I lived the exact same life and had the same things happen to me?” Did Wedington and Hope Given By make a difference?”
“We alleviated at least a little bit of suffering, and we had real conversations,” Jacobsen said. “We had some grown men come to tears.”
Jacobsen believes that Hope Given By can become a movement and that Stanford can inspire other football programs, other teams, and other universities to do the same thing in their communities. He’s currently writing a proposal and a mission statement.
Wedington has aspirations of starting his own business and is more convinced that community service will be a key component.
“Did we make a huge impact? Probably not,” Wedington said. “But did we make a difference? Yes.”
Those whose feet stayed warm and dry for a few nights would agree. Those who were barefoot and given shoes to wear might also agree.
But there are more homeless than ever in San Francisco, in dark corners, under overpasses, in bushes. and wherever a peaceful and protected night can be spent.
Is it worth trying?
Wedington didn’t hesitate before answering.
“I believe so,” Wedington said.