Welcome to Why We Play, a series of discussions with current players and NFL Legends about their youth football experience and why they play the game.
As a kid, Arik Armstead watched his older brother Armond play youth football. So when the time came for him to sign up for the Laguna Jr. Cardinals, Arik was ready.
“He was the reason I started playing,’’ said Arik, who began playing at around nine years old. “My brother played football first, I watched him, so then I decided to try out.’’
From the youth leagues of Elk Grove, just outside of Sacramento, both brothers went on to play in college and professionally. Armond went on to play college football at Southern Cal and in the CFL. Arik’s career took him from Pleasant Grove High School to the University of Oregon, and then to the NFL as a 2015 first-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers.
What he learned way back in those youth leagues is still important for the big defensive lineman, who had 10 sacks for the NFC Champion 49ers in 2019.
“One thing I learned at a young age, playing youth football, was that sense of responsibility and accountability to my teammates and my coaches,” Armstead said. “It’s super important to have that sense of responsibility and learn to work with one another as peers, learn to be coached, and be coachable.
“You all have one common goal to get better and to win games. We all live different lives and do our own things, but we all play football and all of our jobs are equally important. You can’t succeed without your teammates. You rely on one another to get the job done.’’
For Armstead, that reliability, dependability and accountability isn’t just important for football — it’s a life lesson that he said he will carry for years.
“Those things you learn playing youth football, you never lose those skills,” Armstead said. “How to be coached, how to be led, and how to get along with your peers and work together — those skills and traits, hard work, dedication, those stay with you for life.’’
Now in his sixth year with the 49ers after being selected 17th overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, Armstead has continued to help the youth in his native Sacramento area.
“I feel like it’s my responsibility to give back to my community and support the community that helped raise me and put me in the position I am today,’’ he said.
“I started with a free youth football camp for kids. I wanted it to be a fun day, free of any worries they may have going on, and just play football. I also try to preach having an active, healthy lifestyle. Exercising, being a healthy individual, that will help them a long time in life.’’
Armstead’s camp evolved into his foundation, The Armstead Academic Project. The foundation has raised over $200,000 to help kids access quality education. This past year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Armstead donated $50,000 and personally delivered 350 Chromebooks, a one-year pre-paid internet service, and online education kits to multi-student families throughout Sacramento.
Over the past five years, he has made it a priority to visit UC Davis Hospital during the Christmas season and has donated $20,000 in toys to the hospitalized children there.
All of that earned him the 49ers nomination for the NFL’s prestigious Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
“It means a lot,’’ Armstead said. “It’s super humbling to even be a nominee. I’m proud to be in that group.
“This has been a trying year. I’m proud of the other guys I’ve seen talking to their community and helping out. I’m just proud to be mentioned with them. It’s amazing even to be a nominee.”
Armstead is Walter Payton Man of the Year Nominee for the 2020 season. The award recognizes an NFL player for his excellence on and off the field.