On Valentine’s Day this year, Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch sent pink roses to Summer Earl, a 9-year-old girl from Romeo battling a form of brain cancer.
And when she died in March, Tulloch paid $2,000 for her memorial reception at the Palazzo Grande in Shelby Township because her mother, Nikki Earl, couldn’t afford it after leaving her job at the retirement home after the diagnosis in October 2012.
A few weeks before Ryan Kennedy, the 10-year-old Clarkston boy who helped bring worldwide attention to a different form of juvenile brain cancer, died in May 2012, Tulloch sat in his hospital bed and played “The Simpsons” video game with him. Tulloch had just undergone knee surgery and was on crutches, but still made the walk up three flights of stairs to help brighten the boy’s day.
“Stephen wasn’t really good at (the game), and Ryan made it evident,” said Kim Karp, Ryan’s mother. “It was kind of cute.”
Since Tulloch joined the Lions in 2011, he’s made a concerted effort to help raise money for Metro Detroit schools and families affected by cancer. Through the Stephen Tulloch Foundation, which he founded in 2009 while he was with the Titans, he’s raised about $100,000 for various charities in each of his three seasons in Detroit, according to his publicist Sherrie Handrinos, which has helped him win the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award the past two seasons.
This year, Tulloch plans to raise at least $250,000 and already has started working on a project aimed at helping 55 schools through the Detroit Public Schools Foundation.
He also hosts annual free camps in Dearborn and Miami, his hometown, and on Saturday had his charity softball game with several Lions teammates at Ford Woods Park in Dearborn.
And when the Lions are in season, Tulloch has provided about 1,500 tickets for local charities, including Angels of Hope, Big Family and Covenant House. He’s helped children receive dental care and eye exams, too.
Some of the people Tulloch has touched with his philanthropic efforts initially said it was hard to put his impact into words, but they were all grateful to have an NFL player take time to help.
“It makes me feel good to know that a person like him could still be just as human as we are,” Earl said.
'Super big' heart
Tulloch’s passion for helping cancer patients started when a childhood friend, John Jarrett, died in high school.
“To see this kid full of life right before he died, I was like man, if I ever have an opportunity to help people like him with cancer, then I was going to do it,” he said.
Among the charities Tulloch has worked with most in Michigan is Angels of Hope, which provides financial assistance to families affected by juvenile cancer. That’s how he found Summer Earl, whose mother and brother attended his football camp in Dearborn last week.
Tulloch also hosted an “Evening of Hope” for women affected by breast cancer last October at Tre Monti Ristorante in Troy, paying for all of the food and drinks.
“It was so wonderful and that room was just so filled with positive energy instead of that chemo lab where they’re at half the time with their wigs on,” said Robin Sanderson, a director on Angels of Hope’s board. “They were women again. They were out.”
“No money was given to Angels of Hope at the event, but a lot of hope and a lot of support was. ... Every single person there was just on cloud nine.”
Handrinos, meanwhile, helped Tulloch reach Kennedy after his story became popular on social media, and Tulloch gives her plenty of credit for helping build his foundation since the two met after he signed with the Lions.
“It’s something that’s just not typical,” said Karp, Kennedy’s mother. “But Stephen’s not your typical NFL player. He just has a heart that’s just super big, and he gives without thinking. He’s just one of those players who puts others before himself, and that’s just how he is.”
Tulloch’s desire to help schools was born from another personal experience. His single mother was a private nurse at a nursing home, and one of her patient’s sons — Jay Lotspeich, who died a couple of years ago — helped provide the young Tulloch with school supplies, including paying for a laptop and tutoring when he started at North Carolina State.
“I was always at the nursing home sleeping there, spending nights there while she worked, so he felt like he had to help me out,” Tulloch said. “I don’t know why he did, but he did it. Got me tutoring, helped me with school, books, whatever it took to help me get to the next step.”
He’s made multiple speeches at the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy and visited other schools in addition to providing funds.
Tulloch’s current “Operation 55” is raising money for schools on crowdrise.com, and if it raises more than other projects in a competition by June 23, the website will provide an additional $75,000.
“I think a lot of these kids are growing up in adverse situations to where the school is their outlet, it’s their piece of mind,” Tulloch said. “It’s their way of getting out of whatever situation they’re in and bettering themselves.”