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BenFred: Helping souls with soles — NFL's Desir giving back to St. Louis

BenFred: Helping souls with soles — NFL's Desir giving back to St. Louis

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His toes could have been in that plastic tub.

That was not lost on Pierre Desir.

The realization was a big part of the reason the Indianapolis Colts defensive back was here in Jennings on Thursday, bent over at the waist in the Northview Elementary gym, washing the feet of children he had just met.

Desir guided warm, soapy water around ankles. Hands strong enough to rip down interceptions gently pulled up fresh socks. As he tied new laces into little knots, he shared how he once walked in their shoes.

Desir was a St. Louis kid who knew what it was like to wear scuffed sneakers longer than he liked.

He will never forget the thrill of being the first to wear a pair.

As a small army of volunteers that included his mother and one of his brothers worked to wash, dry and introduce little feet to new shoes, Desir recalled a fond memory.

His favorites.

“Reebok Classics,” he said. “White and black.”

Desir’s mother and father, Haitian immigrants who came to St. Louis to escape political unrest when Desir was 4, took their son to a Foot Locker sale when he was in sixth grade. There was a surprise. This time, he didn't have to just window shop.

“I wore those things with church clothes,” Desir said. “I wore them with dress pants. A lot of people take that for granted, the impact a new pair of shoes can just do for your confidence. It was one of the moments I cherish."

Desir’s story deserves a movie.

His family arrived in St. Louis with help from missionaries. His mother, Marie, and father, Wilfrid, worked multiple jobs while learning English. The couple built a life for what grew into a family of five, relocating from St. Louis to St. Charles along the way. All of the Desir children have graduated or are on track to.

Desir is a father of three who now proudly pulls out his cell phone to show photos of his kids, but he was just 16 years old when his oldest, daughter Keeli, was born. Her arrival could have sidelined both school and football.

That's if Desir had much of a football career at that time.

Raised on soccer, he did not try American football until his freshman season at Francis Howell Central, where he became an All-State defensive back. But he failed to meet Division I academic requirements. His route to the NFL included three seasons at Division II Washburn and one life-changing season at Lindenwood that convinced NFL scouts he deserved a shot.

The Cleveland Browns made him Lindenwood's first NFL draft pick when they selected him in the fourth round of 2014.

"He’s never forgotten where he came from,” Lindenwood football coach Jed Stugart said during his volunteer shift. “We speak about humility in our program. When you see someone go on who is doing that, it gives credibility to what we say."

The Browns released Desir. The Chargers signed him, then waived him. Same for the Seahawks. The Colts picked him up off waivers in 2017, and they have not let go of him since, signing him to a three-year, $22.5 million contract in March 2019.

Increased security in Indy has helped Desir increase his impact in St. Louis.

“I play in a different state, but I care," Desir said. "I understand there is a need. I wanted to show St. Louis that I am in your corner."

Desir, who was nominated by the Colts for the league’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award, recently returned to Francis Howell Central for the dedication of a performance center he donated $185,000 to help build. Lindenwood has become the home of his annual football camp. He was back Thursday to introduce Samaritan's Feet, a program he's become an ambassador for after discovering it with the Colts. The nonprofit started by Nigerian immigrant Manny Ohonme has since its founding in 2003 given away more than 7 million pairs of shoes in 108 countries. Add 576 Northview students to the list, thanks to funding from Desir.

These shoe giveaways come with a twist. They go on clean feet.

Question: Have you ever washed a stranger’s feet?

The act is often believed to be a religious one. Not necessarily. As Samaritan's Feet regional director Denise Blomberg reminded: "Jesus did it, but he didn't invent it."

What the washing of feet definitely represents is an act of empathy that forges an automatic connection – after a little initial awkwardness.

“It tickled!” said sixth-grader and aspiring artist Jaisyn Cartier, the first student to walk away in a pair of red Adidas.

“It was warm,” said sixth-grade football player Christian Cole. “I love the shoes.”

“He’s a football player?" "said sixth-grader Haleigh Harrison, who wants to be a heart surgeon. “I’m going to have to tell my dad.”

Northview’s principal put the day in perspective.

“Our district is considered 100 percent free and reduced lunch,” said Patricia Guyton. “To give them shoes? My goodness. We have some students come to school with shoes that are too big or too small. This will be something they always remember."

Some students jumped up two sizes from the pair they wore into the gym, signs they were due for an upgrade. Some swapped tattered laces and flattened heels for Nikes and Pumas. Some preferred to save their new shoes for later, which was just fine. All across the gym, a playing field was leveled. There weren't new shoes and old shoes. Just new shoes. Cool shoes.

Eventually it became hard to tell who was helping, and who was being helped.

“I’ve done a lot of volunteer work, but this is different,” Lindenwood linebacker and volunteer Koby Charles said. "The washing of the feet, it makes it special."

This was warmer, and not just because of the water. This was as likely to tickle your tear ducts as your arches. This was good for the soles and the soul.

“Washing someone’s feet, it brings a lot of things into it,” Desir said. “You have a connection. It shows humility. It shows you are never too big for anything. A lot of people find it surprising. They feel better after they do it. You talk. You interact. You make a connection. You let them know — I am here to help.”

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