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It’s been 50 years since he won the Heisman Trophy. Thirty-eight since coining the term “Hail Mary” for a game-winning, pure-luck touchdown pass against the Minnesota Vikings. Thirty-six since leading the Cowboy’s to their second Super Bowl victory.
Yes, it’s been 34 years since Roger Staubach last touched an NFL football. Yet, four decades later, he continues to touch millions of lives through the NFL-United Way partnership.
“When [United Way] asked me to do their first ad in the ‘70s, I felt privileged to be part of it,” the 71-year-old NFL veteran said. “Forty years later and that hasn’t changed.” Ironically, in the year of the partnership’s 40th anniversary, it seems everything else has.
When Staubach first joined United Way, America’s education system was ranked number one in the world. NFL revenue had yet to break a billion. Salary caps, ESPN, live-streams, and Twitter were just unborn ideas. Still competing for national spotlight, the budding league simply wanted to put a face on players hidden by helmets. At the same time, United Way was seeking high-profile faces to call attention to their fundraising campaigns.
They appeared to be the perfect match, and Mr. Staubach was the perfect front man. In his legendary tale of fourth quarter heroics and off-the-field integrity, Staubach was the true embodiment of United Way’s mission.
A YOUNG VETERAN
While attending the U.S. Naval Academy, Staubach’s commitment to education went above and beyond typical student-athlete status. In his time as a Midshipman, he won the school’s last-ever Heisman Trophy, led his team to a national championship, and had his renowned #12 jersey retired at his graduation ceremony. Surprisingly, those touted achievements weren’t the highest honors of the quarterback’s college career. Instead, Staubach considered his duty to represent America in a Navy uniform—not a football uniform—so honorable that he passed on the opportunity to stay on American soil and actively requested to fight in Vietnam. The 22-year-old’s NFL aspirations were put on hold for four years as he honored his commitment to his school and his country.
AN OLD ROOKIE
Maintaining a football physique while enlisted was crucial for Staubach, who knew that postponing his professional career would put him at a major disadvantage as a 27-year-old rookie. Not surprisingly, few teams wanted to take a chance on the award-winning yet enlisted quarterback. That was until “America’s team”—the Dallas Cowboys—reluctantly took Staubach in the tenth round of the 1964 NFL draft.
If there was ever proof that the best things come to those who wait, Staubach was it. Resuming his football career in 1969, the Navy veteran-turned-NFL-rookie led the Cowboys to four Super Bowls, earning himself nicknames such as “Captain America” and “Captain Comeback.” Ten years, countless trophies, and a couple hits to the head later, the Captain was faced with a heart-wrenching decision—to continue playing the sport he loved or quit for the sake of his health. Ultimately, the committed husband and father of five decided it was his family and future beyond football that he needed to stay healthy for.
A TRUE PROFESSIONAL
During all those years conditioning his body, Staubach didn’t neglect the brain resting beneath his helmet. In the off seasons, he worked for a real estate company that inspired him to start his own in 1977—two years BEFORE retiring from the NFL. The same strategic thinking and motivating spirit that allowed him to lead a successful offense on the field also lent itself to a successful workforce in the office. Under his watch, The Staubach Company blossomed into a multi-billion dollar endeavor, adding to the ex-quarterback’s already-impressive credentials.
AN INFLUENTIAL FAN
Yet Staubach’s financial gains never cost him his character, and he’s maintained his belief that the best investment he can ever make is his time. Growing up with two loving parents and a number of other mentors, Staubach considered himself fortunate and compelled to “pay it forward.” Whether this is literal through his generous donations to the nonprofit, or simply through the gift of his time, the man who claims affiliation to some of America’s most prestigious organizations recognizes United Way’s unique role in his life.
“You fight all the time in life to find the balance between taking and giving back,” Staubach said. “It’s never just about ‘what’s in it for me?’ but more about ‘how can I help others?’ I’ve always trusted United Way to do the right thing, and that’s why I’ve stayed involved with them for so long.”
As the organization’s longest-standing NFL supporter, his titles have changed a number of times—advocate, donor, mentor, board member, and more.
Still, Staubach insists he’s just a “fan.”
“I’m not a paid spokesman,” he said. “I’ve always been a big fan of United Way and felt it was very smart for the NFL to get involved with them. I never could have imagined either one would get so huge, but it’s like they grew together.”
And in their 40th anniversary year, in a country whose education system has since fallen from number one to number 21, United Way is putting a strong focus on increasing America’s graduation rate. In their United Way TEAM NFL campaign, one college-educated player from each team is tasked with recruiting 3,000 volunteer readers, tutors and mentors for students.
So Staubach’s legacy lives on in the youthful hearts and minds of the current players and the many others who have been affiliated with United Way initiatives throughout the years. Whether it’s in a Navy uniform, Cowboy’s jersey, or United Way’s signature Live United T-shirt, Staubach’s unwavering compassion and commitment to excellence continue to inspire people from every generation.
Still, Staubach doesn’t see it that way. The modest hero, unaware of his timeless influence, said it’s the “younger guys” who now have the power to make a difference.
With the future of the historic partnership left in the brawny hands of current and upcoming NFL athletes, Staubach has faith that the legacy he started in the ‘70s will live on through these young professionals.
One of those do-gooders, Cincinnati Bengal’s TEAM NFL rep Vinny Rey, said he feels honored to and inspired to step up to the challenge.
“It’s crazy to me to be working in the shadow of someone like Mr. Staubach, and for such distinguished organizations,” the 26-year-old linebacker said. “I’m nowhere near the hero he is, but I just live with the hope that every good deed I do and every kind word I speak makes an impact on someone. At the end of the day, that’s all the past 40 years are about, and what every day forward will be.”
Watch Roger Staubach's first United Way commercial and others from the last 40 years here: nflunitedway40.usatodaysports.com