Growing up in Paterson, N.J., trouble was never far away for kids like Mike Adams.
Many children were unable to avoid it, falling into the wrong crowds and wandering down dark paths with no futures. But not Adams. He and best friend Gerald Hayes not only dodged the undesirables who funneled kids toward dead-end lives, but they excelled, rising to the heights of the National Football League.
"Where we grew up in Paterson was rough," said Adams, 31. "We didn't have a place that was a safe haven where we could go get on a computer or play basketball and be OK. Nowadays, everybody's all into gangs and violence back home, and we've decided we wanted to get a community center set up back home. It's something we didn't have and wanted."
Adams, a nine-year safety now in his first season with the Denver Broncos after stints in Cleveland (2007-11) and San Francisco (2004-06), and Hayes are using their status to give back to their community in a big way. Adams and Hayes, a linebacker who played for Arizona and San Diego until his release by the Chargers last year, created the Rising Stars Foundation in 2006 to benefit underprivileged children in their hometown.
With the motto of "Reaching back, while moving forward," the foundation is dedicated to providing academic, learning, social, cultural and life skills instruction to kids who often get left behind and are forgotten. It's a program that is near and dear to Adams' heart.
"When I go back home and do things, and all the kids get involved, they see all the bad things happen, but then see me come out of it," he said. "It gives them hope. Just to see the smile on the kids' faces is the best part."
Adams and Hayes host a free football camp each June, with more than 250 children participating this summer. A number of NFL players show up to help teach the kids football skills, put them through a series of fun and challenging noncontact drills and lead them in other football- and team-related activities. Leadership is the theme of the camp, with participants required to write about what leadership means to them and learn ways to become more involved in their local community as active leaders.
"We've had a great reaction," Adams said. "A lot of [NFL] guys come out to the camp, and the kids never get a chance to see NFL players, so it's a great thing. Just for them to be able to get away for a couple hours and see what life [can be] like and that it's fun is wonderful."
Adams recently started a T-shirt company called Around the Clock that provides football camp participants with free T-shirts to commemorate their experience. After the camp concludes, Adams hosts a block party that's complete with bounce houses, Xbox, PlayStation and Wii games, basketball and volleyball courts, popcorn, cotton candy and free food for everyone in an effort to build and deepen a sense of community in the area.
Kids at the block party even get to see Barney and Elmo, who make appearances at the festivities.
"I end up wearing the costumes," the 5-11, 200-pound Adams said. "[Gerald] doesn't want to get into [the costumes] though."
The foundation has made quite an impact in the community and has done so in a number of ways. From providing inner-city children with school supplies and educational scholarships to collecting nonperishable food items and raising money to help alleviate hunger in Passaic County, Rising Stars' initiatives can be seen far and wide.
"We also gave 100 boys and 100 girls free haircuts to go back to school," said Adams, who graduated from Passaic Tech High School, where he has been inducted into the hall of fame and had his number retired. "We handed out more than 750 book bags packed with everything they can use in school."
Adams said the foundation plans a Thanksgiving turkey drive and will also take part in a holiday gift program to provide presents to at-risk children in the area.
For his dedication to helping others, Adams received the 2011 Dino Lucarelli Good Guy Award from the Cleveland Chapter of the Professional Football Writers' Association and has also received a community service award from the New Jersey House of Representatives and the State Senate for his community service and volunteer work.
With New Jersey residents still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Sandy, organizations like the Rising Stars Foundation are more important than ever.
"The storm and the power outage didn't make things any better, I'll tell you that," Adams said. "We actually just moved our headquarters from one spot to another out of a flood zone to a better facility. Thank God we just moved there."
Giving back has always been close to Adams' heart, and being able to use his status to help others is a blessing he is not about to squander.
"It's a little bit of wanting to help and also about not having anything growing up," Adams said of his desire to make a difference. "When I grew up, there were seven kids and three adults in one little apartment. Going outside and not having anything to do, I just felt a responsibility to [help]."