The resurgence of Jets LB Aaron Maybin has been one of the feelgood stories this season. After struggling to find comfort during his two years with the Buffalo Bills, Maybin has broken out in a big way. He has proven impervious to outside criticism, driven only by his own will en route to a team-leading six sacks.
With all the struggles Maybin has overcome on the field, on Tuesday he shared his experiences in overcoming struggles away from the gridiron. Maybin spoke to 100 New York City students with disabilities who were chosen as winners of the "Be a Champion" essay contest organized by the New York Jets, the NYC Department of Education, and Lime Connect, an organization that creates job opportunities for disabled individuals.
Over the last three months, 700 students with various disabilities submitted writing samples concerning what it means to be a champion.
"After reading and listening to these essays, you all don't need to hear that from me," Maybin told the attentive crowd. "Because I'm looking at a room full of champions."
The 23-year-old stood before the crowd and delivered a mature, inspiring speech. He connected deeply with all in attendance, sharing his own personal struggles and praising the parents and teachers in attendance.
"He was fantastic," said Lauren Katzman, executive director of special education for the Division of Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners. "He was true and he was honest. A lot of times, people with disabilities are told what they can't do. If you live with a disability, you don't experience it as a negative. What he showed them is that everyone has it in them."
Connecting with the students was easy for Maybin. First, the age differential between him and his audience was fairly small. Second, he saw himself in the crowd as many of the students exhibited the same characteristics that he did as a child.
"I've been through a lot of things in my life that I can draw upon," he said. "It's easy for me to relate my story to theirs. To understand the things that I struggled with, there's probably somebody in the room that struggles with the exact same thing. In essence, in talking to them, I'm talking to myself as a kid."
The tone of Maybin's speech was more conversational than instructional. According to Tom Wilson, chairman of Lime Connect's board of directors, his words will have an impact for years to come.
"This success is often a real turning point in a lot of students' lives," said Wilson. "It's a great achievement to be recognized by a professional athlete who can look them in the eye and understand what they're going through but also show them what they can aspire to. It's a great opportunity that we couldn't present in any other way."
Growing up, Maybin knew he wanted to play in the NFL. He set his goals high but worked hard to keep them in sight. He overcame the death of his mother at a young age, was later treated for ADHD, and still persevered to earn a football scholarship to Penn State and become an NFL first-round draft pick in 2009.
Thousands of young football players strive for the pro spotlight every day. Maybin wanted it, too, but for an atypical reason. He wanted to use his status to give back.
"I wanted to buy my mom and dad a house, and I wanted to have a foundation," said Maybin. "You say that stuff as a kid, but when you're given the opportunity, your real character shows through. Are you really as wholeheartedly into this as you say you are?"
Maybin cannot be found guilty of paying lip service. He has backed up his words with actions, as was evidenced on Tuesday night. Additionally, he has his own foundation, Project Mayhem, which aims to provide personal and economic aid to help underprivileged and at-risk youth.
With his breakout season in full swing, Maybin has been able to showcase his skills on the field each Sunday. During the rest of the week, he uses his skills to lift up the spirits of countless children.
In his flashy home sack celebrations, Maybin extends his arms above his head, basking in the raucous reaction from the MetLife Stadium crowd. At that moment, he loves the attention. Between Sundays, Maybin asks for no praise for what he does away from the field. His presence in the local community and his home community of Baltimore often goes unnoticed. He doesn't ask for the attention because that's not how he was raised. And that's exactly how he wants it to be.
"On the football field, you try to lead by example," he said. "In life I try to lead by example. I'm not the kind of guy that's going to broadcast this or that, but I think that if anybody watches you and how you live your life, they should be able to tell what's important to you."