Former NFL player Dhani Jones was watching a football game last fall when he spotted a TV commercial about the scholarship foundation launched by retired Vikings great Alan Page. His eyes lit up.
Impressed by Page's work, Jones also was struck by his bow tie. Jones' own nonprofit creates bow ties to spotlight and raise funds for causes. Could this be a match?
"I was excited; I wanted to reach out," said Jones, who flew to Minneapolis Saturday to attend the Page Education Foundation's annual fundraiser, where party-goers sported the purple bow tie he created for the occasion.
The unexpected meeting of the minds -- or maybe necks -- underscores the hundreds of charities being started by professional sports figures. The two in Minneapolis this weekend point to the range: from a respected 25-year-old scholarship and mentoring program to the two-year-old BowTieCause, founded by the 10-year NFL linebacker, which has collaborated with dozens of nonprofits.
While noble endeavors, charities are tough to pull off for the long haul, said Page, a Minnesota Supreme Court justice and board member of NFL Charities, the NFL's philanthropic foundation.
"Philanthropy isn't something you just wake up and do; it takes a lot of effort," he said. "It's always there and always needs attention."
But on Saturday night, at least, it was time to celebrate that effort. The theme of the evening, not surprisingly, was "Community Ties." And with guests and hosts sporting the new neckwear, it may have been the largest-ever gathering of bow ties in Minnesota.
"I think this is spectacular," said Page, referring to the purple tie with tiny blue human figures connected by arrows, symbolizing the power of paying it forward. "I love the way it feels. When I'm tying it ... it stays where I want it to be. We're in tune."
NFLers give back
There are more than 100 foundations run by current and former NFL players, said Alexia Gallagher, director of NFL Charities. It's not unusual for players to collaborate, for example, on disaster relief projects, she said.
But this collaboration is different. The two former players had never met each other. They played in the NFL three decades apart: Jones leaving the league in 2010, Page in 1981.
They moved in different philanthropy circles. And their common thread was a love for the humble bow tie -- and making a difference in the world.
"Both Justice Page and Dhani Jones are extremely active in philanthropic endeavors," said Gallagher. "But their bow tie bond certainly is a unique one and serves as a wonderful way to connect two very special individuals while doing a tremendous amount of good for those in need."
Both foundations are unusual, she said. The Page Foundation has given scholarships to more than 4,600 minority students since 1988, with a particular focus on first generation college students. Those students, in turn, are required to mentor younger students.
The thousands of Page scholars have donated more than 300,000 hours of time over the years, the foundation reports. "We have been outnumbered by the gangs," said Page. "You have young children who have lost hope, who don't have a support system. We like to think our Page scholars fill some of that void."
Its 24-year track record is not typical. The secret to success? "We managed to stay focused on the original concept and the original goal," said Page. "That cuts out a lot of mistakes."
BowTieCause was born after Jones, who last played with the Cincinnati Bengals, was invited to participate in a benefit for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund in 2010.
Jones had been sporting bow ties for about a decade at that point, starting initially as a symbolic gesture in support of a close friend who had battled lymphoma. That friend had urged him to "rock the bow tie."
Jones decided to design a tie for the occasion, a blue tie marked by zig-zagging black lines that symbolize the ups and downs of living with juvenile diabetes.
Since then, his nonprofit has created specialized bow ties for dozens of nonprofits ranging from the Ronald McDonald House to the Alzheimer's Association.
The ties are a fundraising tool and a discussion starter, said Jones. "When people see you in a bow tie, it inspires conversation. And that inspires philanthropy."
The ties may also inspire a new tradition. Jessica Sahu Teli, 22, was among the dozens of Page scholars at the event Saturday, even asking Jones and Page for tips on tying. The tie, she says, represents the enormous support and friendship she has received over the past four years. It's not going to just hang in her closet.
"I think they're very classy," said Sahu Teli, who will graduate from Bemidji State University this year. "I plan to wear this at the next fancy event I go to."
Jean Hopfensperger 612-673-4511