Matthew and Kelly Stafford: Helping people off the field

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Even though Matthew Stafford has been part of our lives for a dozen years, we've never really gotten to know the Detroit Lions quarterback.

Sure, it's understood he possesses a rocket launcher attached to his shoulder and he's as tough as a $2 steak, but his public persona has always been a bit bland. And that's by design. 

It's been years since Stafford deleted all of his social media accounts, and even longer since he's said anything that could be construed as controversial in an interview. He's polished, well-versed in the clichés of his industry and straight vanilla when the cameras and recorders are rolling. 

Because he had built a fortress around his private life, concealing his interests and opinions outside of the game of football, it only made it that much more meaningful when he boldly stepped into the spotlight this year to become more vocal about social justice issues in our country. 

FILE - Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford poses for a picture before the game with wife Kelly and daughters Chandler, Sawyer and new baby Hunter.   NFL Detroit Lions vs. Seattle Seahawks at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan on October 28, 2018.

Stafford's decision to step forward, to take a stance, came after an offseason filled with heartfelt, difficult conversations with teammates and family members, spurred by a spring and summer of civil unrest. 

"Our organization has done a heckuva job giving players on this team space and ability to connect, talk and grow," Stafford said. "I truly believe every day I'm breathing I want to learn something, I want to make myself better and listen. That's the best way to do it. I spent a bunch of time this offseason listening, trying to learn and trying to relate and feel. I just felt like throughout this offseason, it kind of snowballed for me, where I felt like it was the right time to do all the things that I did and I am doing."

Stafford's convictions have manifested in words and actions. He began and continues to kneel during the national anthem ahead of games, and he elaborated on his thoughts in a lengthy piece on the Player's Tribune titled, "We Can't Just Stick to Football." He donated more than a $1.5 million to his alma mater, the University of Georgia, with much of those funds earmarked toward the athletic department's new social justice initiative, as well as scholarships for inner-city youth trying to overcome financial hardship in their quest for an education. 

"(Wife) Kelly and I met at Georgia and we also thought to ourselves, man, some of the biggest change you can make in your life and who you become as a person starts in college," Stafford said. "We wanted to catch people while they were young, eager to learn and eager to change. Georgia was more than willing to help us out and build this great program. I was obviously happy to be part of it."

While it's Stafford's career as a professional athlete that provides the means, Kelly is the force behind many of the couple's philanthropic efforts. 

For the past several years, they have run a Christmas program for Detroit families in need. Kelly seeks submissions, selects the families, does the shopping and wrapping and even rents and loads the moving truck. That way, when Matthew gets home from practice, they can go drop the gifts off together. 

It's that in-person touch that makes it so much more rewarding. 

"The interaction that we get with the people, the families, it's the best part," Matthew said. "We go to their house, we hang out — probably longer than they want us to — and we just kick it with them for a while. Most of the families have little kids. We're getting to hang out with the kids, watching them smile and beam, which is awesome."

Kelly has led the charge organizing two other projects specific to the struggles our area has faced in 2020.

First, during the early stages of the pandemic, the couple worked through the team to provide food to needy families through Forgotten Harvest, as well as front-line workers by offering free meals through multiple local restaurants. 

Matthew and Kelly Stafford and their children.

"Kelly was showing me pictures from people in the community, front-line workers, who were thanking us for a sandwich, a burger, stuff like that," Matthew said. "It was a cool way we thought to support local business that were hurting because people couldn't go to restaurants at the time and sit and eat, but also support the people that are making a huge difference in the hospitals."

And this fall, Matthew and Kelly provided school supplies, including Microsoft Surface computers to students at both the Detroit Lions Academy and the SAY Detroit Play Center at Lipke Park, a recreational center that Stafford helped fund with a $1 million donation in 2015. 

"She's the driver behind the majority of stuff we do," Matthew said about Kelly. "She's always had a great feel for the community, needs and wants and always, ever since I met her, has always wanted to make other people smile and make other people have a good day.

"... She's incredible in what she does and I'm obviously blessed to be by her side."

Matthew and Kelly Stafford

Ages: Matthew, 32; Kelly 30'

Occupations: Matthew is the Detroit Lions quarterback; Kelly is a philanthropist

Education: University of Georgia 

Family: Four daughters — Chandler, Sawyer, Hunter and Tyler

Why honored: During the COVID-19 pandemic the couple ramped up their philanthropic efforts, feeding front-line workers, donating to a local food bank and providing school supplies to Detroit children. Additionally, Matthew became an advocate in the NFL's social justice fight, through both public demonstration and charitable donations. 

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