Foundation sets up for long term in ‘Not For Long’ league

Buffalo Bills players visit a patient on behalf of the P.U.N.T. Foundation.

Buffalo Bills players visit a patient on behalf of the P.U.N.T. Foundation.

By Hailey Rose Gattuso   

There is a joke among National Football League players that NFL actually stands for “not for long.” Career paths of professional athletes have always been unpredictable, so players learn not to get too comfortable in any one place.

Former Buffalo Bills’ punter Brian Moorman was not your average player.

The average career for punters and kickers is 4.87 years. Moorman played in Buffalo for 11, and in that time he left his mark on the community. In 2004, he founded the P.U.N.T. Foundation to help kids battling cancer.

As he approached what he saw might be the end of his career with the Bills in 2012, he knew the work he was doing was too valuable to come to an end just because of his physical absence.

Throughout Moorman’s time in Buffalo, his foundation had grown to be much more than just a player’s name being used as a fundraising mechanism. It had become a full-blown nonprofit, a 501(c)(3), serving two hospitals and consisting of six programs. Moorman’s fellow NFLers had gotten involved and the foundation was moving quickly to help families in dire need.

Engaging the Players

What would be the fate of the foundation once Moorman was no longer on the Bills’ roster?

“It was still extremely important to him that the foundation be able to continue to do its work no matter where he played or lived,” Executive Director Gwen Mysiak shared. “I know he hoped it would become big and we both believe we came together at the right time because at least I had the professional experience to carry on without him.”

The two met when Moorman arranged for Mysiak’s 15-year-old cousin Andrew Pawlak to have a final swim with his family in a hotel pool after fighting a rare form of sarcoma for 20 months. Andrew died only days later. Mysiak was so touched by what the P.U.N.T. Foundation did, that she was eager to step in and help.

She did not have an easy task. Not only was she leaving her job of 18 years at public broadcasting station WNED, she was joining the foundation in May 2012, the twilight of Moorman’s career with the Bills.

“I think the biggest fear I had was loss of engagement with the Buffalo Bills – both as an organization and with individual players,” Mysiak said. There was a heavy reliance on Moorman to keep the mission alive in the Bills’ locker room.

To her surprise, she found quite the opposite. “The players had enough understanding and respect for what we did that they really rallied around the cause,” Mysiak said. The involvement of other players also allowed Moorman to get more involved in the day-to-day processes of the foundation.

Buffalo Bills’ kickoff specialist Jordan Gay and punter Colton Schmidt are both active volunteers with the foundation.

A comment on one of the foundation’s recent Facebook posts questioned why Moorman would want someone who took his position on the team working with the foundation.

Wouldn’t it be awkward?

More than one person has asked this question. The answer: absolutely not.

Schmidt’s response was, “Brian obviously is the legend of the community. He has done a lot of great things on and off the field in Buffalo, and it’s an honor to able to step in and continue what he has done.”

When I asked Mysiak to speak on it she said, “Brian had said to me from the very beginning that it would be terrific if the new punter would get involved. He was looking toward the future with hope – knowing that he wouldn’t play forever – that people would pick it up and be willing to carry it on.”

In fact, he had the idea to change the website domain from brianmoorman.org to puntfoundation.org.

“He said many times, ‘Just take my name off of it.’ Clearly he is in it for the right reasons because he has recognized that it needs to be bigger than him for it to continue,” Mysiak told me.

Understanding the Depth

She and I discussed some of the goals of the foundation. One of them being, to make people realize the impact it has in the community. “I don’t think people fully understand the depth of what we’re doing,” she said.

The small size of the P.U.N.T. Foundation allows for relationships with the families and hospitals that create an understanding of what their needs truly are. “We do things like providing direct financial assistance, putting food in the fridge and gas in the tank. Our programs provide a comprehensive support of the families in the situation,” she said.

The foundation puts an emphasis on quick response time. Mysiak used the example of 17-year-old Shahadah Johnson from the Field of Dreams program.

Shahadah Johnson, 17, has battled cancer four times.

Shahadah Johnson, 17, has battled cancer four times.

Shahadah draws people in with her big brown eyes, glowing skin and beautiful smile. Her optimism and sense of humor is exceedingly impressive for a three-time cancer survivor who’s facing yet another battle.

In December 2014, she had to make a decision no one her age should have to make.

The cancer she had so courageously fought and conquered was back for a fourth time. Chemotherapy was not an option this time around because it had already done so much damage to her lungs, heart and liver.

She was left with the option of getting her lung removed, a very risky surgery with a low survival rate, or letting the cancer take over her body.

“I didn’t want to pick because if I get the surgery tomorrow, I could die tomorrow, or I could wait and have longer to live,” Shahadah said.

She decided not to have the surgery and made a list of things she wanted to do when she got out of the hospital. Meeting her idol, Rachael Ray, was her dream. That is where the P.U.N.T. Foundation stepped in.

Several people had made Mysiak aware of Shahadah’s dream. “We really put our network to work and it turned up in about 24 hours that I had found a good in-road and was able to connect her with the producer of the show, who was happy to be helping, and we arranged this whole opportunity for her to meet Rachael Ray,” Mysiak said.

Shahadah was going to be a guest on one of the last shows of the season. There was going to be a meet-and-greet and the staff was working on multiple surprises for her.

The day before Shahadah was supposed to leave, she began having some challenges, and it was deemed unsafe for her to fly. She could not get authorized and the whole thing fell through hours before it was supposed to happen.

Instead, Rachael Ray sent Shahadah a video shout out that Mysiak personally brought to Shahadah’s home. “When I brought her the video her one comment to me was that she was just upset that she let everyone down who made this happen for her,” Mysiak said.

The foundation continues to grow and help more families like Shahadah’s but does not lose its personal touch. “I will never let us get to the point where we are too corporate and not focused on these families and what they are going through so its just personal for me because I’ve experienced it,” Gwen said referring to the cousin she lost to pediatric cancer.

The P.U.N.T. Foundation, has without question, grown despite Brian’s relocation in 2012, and inspired everyone involved.

“There have been a couple of kids – just the amount of perseverance they have.” Schmidt shared. “The strength and resilience to push through difficulties, that’s an inspiration to myself.”

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