Chris Long traveled to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in the winter of 2013. Now a defensive end for the Eagles, Long was then a high-profile player on the St. Louis Rams who wanted to experience “something out of my comfort zone.”
The mountain was the motivation, the challenge of climbing 20,000 feet, of experiencing life beyond pressuring the quarterback on third-and-8.
“I really enjoyed that,” Long said, “but what I saw was an opportunity to really improve the world.”
It happened in the hotel bar after the climb. Long celebrated with former teammate James Hall over a few drinks.
“Hey, Chris!” Long heard behind him.
Surprised that someone knew him in Tanzania, Long turned around and saw sportscaster Joe Buck. Buck was with Doug Pitt, the Goodwill ambassador to Tanzania. During their conversation, Long learned about the need for clean water in Tanzania and the suffering that water-borne illnesses caused in a place that enchanted him.
“It hit me that water would be as good a way to change the world as any cause that I encountered,” Long said.
Long has since created the Waterboys Initiative, which has provided clean water for more than 100,000 people in East Africa. It’s one of the causes that Long has used his public platform to support.
After violent protests in his hometown of Charlottesville, Va., during the summer, Long determined that he would donate his first six game checks to fund two scholarships to the private high school he attended there. And then in October, he announced he would donate his final 10 game checks for equal educational opportunities in St. Louis, Boston, and Philadelphia – the three NFL markets in which he’s played. That meant he’s donating his entire $1 million salary this season.
Long, 32, has earned that salary. He’s a reliable rotation player for the Eagles. He enters Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears and his brother, Bears offensive lineman Kyle Long, with three sacks and two forced fumbles while playing 47 percent of the defensive snaps.
Long has also become a popular veteran in the locker room in his first season on the team. Brent Celek called him “one of my favorites I’ve played with” in 11 seasons. Long confirmed everything Malcolm Jenkins heard about him before he signed.
“He’s someone who walks the walk,” Jenkins said. “For all the endeavors he’s in, it’s really impressive. And even the things he might not be involved in, he’s willing to listen and learn. The amount of empathy he’s able to give is something that’s missing right now in society. I haven’t had a teammate quite like him.”
In a short period, Long also entered the consciousness of Philadelphia fans as much for what he’s done away from pass rushing. He became an ardent supporter of Jenkins’ effort to raise awareness for racial injustice, putting his arm on Jenkins’ shoulder while Jenkins raises his fist in the air during the national anthem before games. He was outspoken about the problems in Charlottesville. Donating his salary helped his money match his words. And he’s devoted his time, too.
On the morning after a Sunday night game, Long traveled with Jenkins and Torrey Smith to Harrisburg to lobby for criminal justice reform. On the first night of the Eagles’ bye week, he hosted a Waterboys fundraiser at a Center City steakhouse that raised $80,000. It’s evidence of Long’s desire to be “more than a football player.”
“He’s always been that way,” said Howie Long, Chris’ father and an NFL Hall of Famer. “As a young player in the league, he was very mindful of wanting to not only impact his community but impact the world. Climbing Kilimanjaro … is a metaphor for his life. What’s the next mountain to climb?”
Using the platform
The Kilimanjaro climb didn’t begin Long’s charitable endeavors. Howie Long said he saw Chris care for others even as a teenager growing up in Charlottesville. Kyle Long remembered his older brother mentoring underprivileged kids in the area as a high schooler. But what Chris Long realized as his career progressed was the value the NFL platform provides.
“I almost resented it when people did things publicly,” Long said. “But then I kind of started to see the value of getting more of a return on your investment in whatever your cause is in involving fans and using your platform.”
The conversation at the bar after climbing Kilimanjaro spurred his first and most earnest foray into out-front advocacy. He set out to raise money for wells for clean water in Africa and incorporated other players in the efforts. So far, he’s raised $1.6 million and has been able to provide clean water to 100,000 people. Long has invested his own money, but other players, fans, and businesses have helped. Former Eagles defensive end Connor Barwin has raised the fourth-most of 15 other players or former players involved.
“Not everything happens for a reason, but that sure did,” Long said of the post- Kilimanjaro conversation. “If they didn’t walk through the bar, I wouldn’t have thought about clean water as a way to change the world. So some good things happen in bars.”
Long’s event on Nov. 13 funded the 27th well. It will be dedicated to honor Philadelphia and Eagles fans. Long has taken an interest in Philadelphia, hosting the bye week event and including Philadelphia in his “Pledge 10 for Tomorrow” campaign that corresponds with donating his paychecks. Philadelphia pledgers have donated $104,060 so far to promote educational equity.
“Philly people are really step-up-to-plate [people] is what I’ve learned here,” Long said. “That just speaks to the passion these fans have and the generosity.”
It’s all part of Long’s last push as an NFL player. He’s been a top pick, earned lucrative contracts and won a Super Bowl. He knows the clock is ticking on his NFL career, so he wants to take advantage of this platform while it exists.
“By my sixth year in the league, I realized, ‘Hey, I’m getting old,’ ” Long said. “I don’t know how much longer I’m going to have this platform.”
Enjoy his role
The Eagles signed Long in March to be part of a defensive end rotation in Jim Schwartz’s attacking, downhill scheme. They didn’t need him to be the No. 2 overall pick, like he was with the Rams in 2008. He didn’t need to adjust to a different scheme, like he did in New England last season. Long arrived in Philadelphia already accomplished. He wanted a place that would allow him to get “back to the player I was or as close as you can be to that.”
“When I was 23, I was making a ton of money. Being a high draft pick, there was a lot of pressure,” Long said. “If I had 8 1/2 sacks in a year and a whole bunch of pressures and play good football, you’d still get called out that you have to play at a higher level. Now, the fun thing for me being here is, being 32 you fly under the radar. They’re not expecting much of you. I just enjoy my role. I enjoy playing good football and being a part of this D-line.”
Schwartz described Long as a “multidimensional player” who is smart, experienced and tough. The Eagles shuffle their pass rushers to keep them fresh, so Long takes valuable snaps. He usually comes into the game with Derek Barnett, and Long plays the left defensive end spot.
“I feel a lot more like myself,” Long said. “I don’t get as many snaps as I used to, but I feel good about the snaps I’m getting. And we’re winning. I love it.”
Long downplayed the Sunday meeting with his brother, saying it will be good to see him. But it’s otherwise just another game. It’s the third time they’re playing against each other. Kyle Long said he didn’t appreciate it the first time. He had more appreciation for it the second time and will make sure to enjoy Sunday. He’s impressed by how his brother is playing but will “try to jack him up” if they run to each other. He knows that his older brother will offer sarcastic butt slaps when they’re on the field together to try to get under his skin.
“I’m very, very thankful that our problems this week consist of trying to beat each other in an NFL game,” Kyle Long said.
Chris Long is appreciating this part of his career. In his first eight NFL seasons, he never had a winning record. Long finally won a Super Bowl last year, and he could win another one this season. It’s coming to a point in Long’s career when he’s more aware than ever of how precious his time is, and he’s made sure to take advantage of it in every way.
“I think it was probably my third or fourth year in the league when I really started to look up to my older brother as a humanitarian, as a leader,” Kyle Long said. “In the professional aspect of football, he does a good job in that. He’s prepared. He’s studious. But you look on the other side, it’s really what defines him as a man.”