Dustin Keller will never have a more significant reception than the one he grabbed from the United Way on May 18 at the historic Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City.
The 25-year-old Keller, a fine pass-catching target on the field, was named the Jets' 2010 Hometown Hero for his continued commitment to the community.
"It's huge. It's as great an honor as I've ever received or ever will receive," he said at the United Way's 17th annual Gridiron Gala. "For an organization that does as much as the United Way does, it's huge for me and it means a lot."
A first-round pick out of Purdue in 2008, Keller serves as the Jets' spokesman for the SchoolFood Program that promotes the importance of healthy eating to New York City public school students. He also recently started his own foundation and was honored to get recognized by an organization that helped him when he was a child growing up in Lafayette, Ind.
"I grew up in a single-parent home. My mother was working and going to school at the same time, and there were five of us boys. There wasn't always time for her to be there, so a lot of times there were after-school programs at the YMCA, which is one of the organizations the United Way is involved with," he said. "I spent countless hours on the basketball courts, at all their little camps. It was just huge for us — especially my mother — since it was affordable and we had a lot of fun there."
The Jets were well represented at the Waldorf and Keller had to feel at home with supporters like Jerricho Cotchery, Tony Richardson, Joe Klecko, Bobby Jackson and Wesley Walker on hand.
"Dustin's been my locker mate now for three years and I've seen the growth not only as a football player but as a person as well," Richardson said. "To be here tonight to celebrate this award with him, I think it's fitting just to see a young man who understands obviously the responsibilities we have on Sunday to play, but he realizes just how important it is Monday through Saturday to give back to the community, so it's great to be part of this. I'm so happy for him."
In addition to the dinner at which both Keller and Giants DE Justin Tuck were recognized, folks mingled with the Jets and the Giants at a VIP cocktail reception and there were live and silent auctions. Proceeds will benefit 10,000 ninth-graders in NYC public schools who aren't performing at their grade level.
"Throughout the year, the Hometown Huddle is where the United Way of New York City staff and Jets players and other folks come together and roll up their sleeves and say, 'You know what? We can make a difference,' " said Gordon Campbell, United Way of New York City's president and chief executive officer. "I have to tell you because of our partnership with the Jets, we do make a difference."
Cotchery, who was the Jets' Hometown Hero in 2007, found himself back on the main stage but this time it was to present Keller.
"It's definitely been a thrill to see him work out in the community. He's doing a great job," J-Co said. "He started the Dustin Keller foundation where he's working with underserved children and he's helping them out a lot, bringing athletic opportunities to today's kids. I'm proud of the work he's doing in the community and I think it all starts with the Jets. They present a lot of opportunities for us and make it easy for us to get out in the community and do the work that we're doing."
Keller has made good on his on-field opportunities in his professional career, totaling 93 receptions and five TD catches in regular-season action. He's also shown a propensity for coming up big when he's needed most, as evidenced by his 12 catches and three TDs in the Jets' recent playoff run. The United Way of New York City is happy that he uses his hands not only to excel on the gridiron but to give others a boost when in need.
"He's so deserving to be recognized," said Campbell. "I got a chance to meet him a few months ago and what he does in the community is over the top. In fact, what he does is just as important as or more important than what he does on the field."