Johnny Townsend: #AthleteAnd Philanthropist
The recent NCAA shift that now allows student-athletes to make money by selling their name, image and likeness (NIL) rights has many former college players wondering “what if?”
Count Johnny Townsend among that number – only, his idea of securing the bag during his days at the University of Florida would look a lot different than most.
“I wanted to start my own foundation in college,” the former Gator and current Baltimore Ravens punter recalled, “but since using my name or likeness to raise money–even for charity–was considered against the rules, I had to wait until after my senior season, which is crazy.”
Fortunately, that silly technicality did little to deter Townsend from helping pediatric cancer patients. It’s a passion that was birthed in 2016 when he first started visiting the UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital as part of the school’s community program for student-athletes. While bonding with the kids and their families, Townsend took notice of the pediatric infusion clinic’s cramped spaces and thought up ways to potentially brighten their circumstances.
“I got a feel for what their needs were and the hospital was planning renovations for the infusion clinic, so I really just wanted to find a way to provide as much help as I can for these deserving children and their families,” Townsend said.
Since starting The Johnny Townsend Foundation in 2017, the Florida native has raised tens of thousands of dollars to benefit the greatest needs of the pediatric oncology infusion clinic. And as he prepares for his next fundraising event on July 18– a Winter Park wine cruise during which items will be auctioned off – Townsend is excited to take the next step in using his platform to kick for a greater cause.
What do you remember from your early visits to the UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital that made you want to make a difference?
It was really just developing relationships with the kids and seeing how positive they were despite what they were going through, and how grateful their families were to know someone else was taking time out to try and brighten their day. It motivated me to do something more.
One issue was there was really no private space. Instead of individual rooms, the kids were separated by just curtains while they did their infusions. They also didn’t have any entertainment systems for the kids to pass the time, and it wasn’t a comfortable setting for parents to spend time; there was just a chair or two.
The renovation is a multi-million dollar project, so our contributions were pretty miniscule, but I figure every little bit helps. I fundraised through social media, which was the best way to do it at the time; just using my reach and audience. Since then, we’ve scaled into a much larger operation where we host in-person events and fundraisers.
You are far from the only athlete who has started or wants to start their own non-profit. What tips would you offer based on your experience?
It starts with finding your passion, something that has meaning to you and that you can get behind. Then from there, it’s figuring out how to scale it, which was a big learning experience for me because, at first, I was a one-man show. I developed the website, learned the ins and outs of fundraising and found out what resources were available to me.
Second is finding a team that shares the same passion. My dad is one of my biggest supporters, especially because my grandfather was at Shands for cancer treatments, so there’s a personal attachment there for both of us. Another big advocate for me is [former Notre Dame and South Carolina coach] Lou Holtz. His wife received treatment at Shands for 22 years before she passed away and he’s been one of my biggest mentors.
It starts with finding your passion, something that has meaning to you and that you can get behind. Then from there, it’s figuring out how to scale it.
How have you managed focusing on your NFL career as well as your foundation?
When I first started pursuing the NFL, I wanted to take advantage of the platform and use it for good while I had it. You’re a lot more effective with fundraising when you have a platform. I’m definitely blessed to be able to establish this during my career and this is something I plan to keep doing well into my post-football career.
I’m planning on doing some rebranding soon. My youngest brother Tommy is a punter for the Kansas City Chiefs and we’ve talked about him getting involved more so we can rebrand the foundation and our efforts as a family. I’m really excited for what’s in store.
To learn more about The Johnny Townsend Foundation, visit his website.