SAN FRANCISCO — Being a professional athlete, especially an NFL player, gives Denver Broncos kicker Brandon McManus a big advantage when he talks to young people about a cause he is dedicated to — preventing bullying.
"Any time you're a public figure and they know who you are, know your fame and your face, you can get their ears to listen a little more than you would have otherwise," McManus told me at Super Bowl 50 media day in San Jose.
His Anti Bully Squad is a relatively new organization that McManus, 24, has formed with Tom Peterson, a former hip hop manager, and others to raise awareness of how pervasive bullying is and offer hope to those bullied.
As the kicker for a Super Bowl team, McManus has a platform to raise the profile of his group. Ian O'Connor of ESPN.com wrote a terrific article this weekend about McManus and the Anti Bully Squad. I asked McManus about his awareness of the bullying epidemic that plagues young LGBT people.
"We deal a lot with that," he said. "In the gay community there is a lot of sense of people being bullied because they're different. One of the biggest things we're trying to prevent is people committing suicide. For these younger kids, they're too afraid to talk to their parents, they feel embarrassed. We're trying to give an avenue for anyone who wants to speak up to help save lives."
The Tyler Clementi Foundation, dedicated to the memory of the gay Rutgers University student who was bullied so badly that he killed himself in 2010, has already connected with the Anti Bully Squad about working together. It's a natural fit in a lot of ways, even geographically. McManus is a Philadelphia native who went to Temple University. Rutgers is not far away in New Jersey.
McManus was moved to start the Anti Bully Squad while attending a charity event for Down syndrome in Denver. There he heard about the awful bullying being inflicted upon 9-year-old Ryder Hillery. Some neighbors — including a school teacher — were mercilessly bullying Ryder and McManus decided to get involved.
McManus showed up at Ryder's house in his Broncos uniform to show his support and to send a silent message to the neighbors. "I went and played football with him in the front yard," McManus said. "Just seeing the joy on his and his family's face was awesome."
"It's hard to put into words how Brandon's made our family feel," Season Hillery told ESPN.com. "It's the worst feeling in the world when you think you can't protect your children from something awful. Nobody told Brandon he had to do this; he volunteered out of the goodness of his heart. Now every time the Broncos play, there's Ryder cheering for Brandon on TV."
McManus, who is straight, grew up with gay people and had openly gay high school classmates. "They're great people," he said. "We need to welcome them with open hearts."
There is even an LGBT connection for McManus in the Super Bowl — the woman who is housesitting his dogs while he is away is a lesbian.
McManus has been McMoney in the playoffs. He has made all seven of his field goals and scored 23 of Denver's 43 points. The Broncos have needed every one of those points since their two AFC playoff wins have been by a combined nine points.
McManus hopes to be an NFL kicker for a long time and score hundreds more points. But his advocacy against bullying is ultimately more important and he is in it for the long haul.
"Our goal is to save lives because I hate hearing about people taking their own lives over being bullied," he said.