Eric Decker was honored by the Jefferson Awards Foundation for Greatest Public Service by an Athlete on Wednesday night.
"I think this is probably the biggest award I've received in my lifetime," Decker said. "Football is what I do, but this is something that's bigger than that."
Decker was celebrated for the off-the-field work he and his wife, Jessie James, do through the Eric & Jessie Foundation. The foundation's primary focus is Deckers Dogs, a program that helps to fund the rescue, care and training of service dogs for military veterans returning home with disabilities.
"The foundation helps me make an impact in my own unique way by raising money to train service dogs, for the veterans that gave us our freedom," he said.
Freedom is the overarching theme and foundation of Deckers Dogs. Freedom for a shelter dog that might otherwise be euthanized. Freedom for a wounded veteran coming home from war.
Nominations for the awards were submitted from all over the world by the thousands and then narrowed down by a board of selectors that includes Michael Douglas, Neil Simon and Whoopi Goldberg. Billie Jean King was also the recipient of a national service award. Former Jet Marty Lyons was bestowed with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013.
"Most of what we do is about inspiring young people to do amazing things," executive director Hillary Schafer said of the organization co-founded by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1972. "When somebody like Eric Decker is awarded, we hope that others will look at him and say, 'Well, maybe I can do something, too.'"
The Eric & Jessie Decker Foundation Recognized for Positively Impacting Military Service Members & Veterans
"Deckers Dogs is the perfect kind of marriage between two things we are both really passionate about – dogs and the military," added Jessie. "I'm a military brat. My dad is in the Air Force."
The road from shelter to service costs on average $25,000 per dog and in two years, Deckers Dogs has raised enough money to train eight service dogs. Potential canine companions are scouted out at shelters and put through a series of behavioral tests to check for things like food aggression.
The dog-loving Decker family wouldn't be complete without two pups of their own, Jake and Jenny.
"I always had small dogs," Eric said from the red carpet of the awards ceremony. "My first big dog was when Jess and I got together and got two golden retrievers."
Their dogs are gentle giants when it comes to Eric and Jessie's two young children, 6-month old Eric, Jr., who goes by Bubby in the Decker household, and Vivianne, who will turn 2 later this month.
"Vivi can run all over them roll all over them. Bubby is already pulling at their ears and their hair," Jessie said. "We actually put our dogs through it just to see if they would pass the first round and they did, especially our Jenny. We were shocked. They said she would be phenomenal."
Through Eric and Jessie's foundation, the companionship a dog offers extends well beyond the confines of a household.
"The motto we have is, you free a hero to save a hero. I have dogs and they really are man's best friend," Eric said, even going as far to say that he and his dog Jake have similar souls. "He's so laid back, reserved, but when he kind of has to puff his chest to protect his family, he does."
Of course these service dogs can't talk, but if they could, what does Eric think they would say?
"I think they would be just as thankful, if not more for being rescued because a lot of times they probably are going to be put down," Eric told me. "To see the impact the dogs have made on these veterans' lives, it's just amazing. I couldn't imagine what these veterans mean to the dogs and I'm sure the dogs feel the same way."