Donald Driver doesn’t hold anything back.
When the former professional football player tells his story to people, they get the whole deal. It’s an emotional and riveting ride dotted with harsh times — experiencing poverty and homelessness — that lead to victory in the end.
While speaking to the crowd at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue on Monday, Driver stopped for a few seconds as his eyes welled up with tears.
As the 1,400 attendees at Kirkland-based Hopelink‘s 19th annual Reaching Out Benefit Luncheon fell silent, Driver slowly gathered himself and forged onward to finish his inspirational, gut-wrenching speech.
Driver, 39, grew up in Houston, Texas, in the menacing 5th Ward neighborhood. For about a month as a teen, the boy and his mother and four siblings lived in a U-Haul truck under a bridge.
“We didn’t know where our next meal was coming from. We didn’t know where we were gonna lay our head,” Driver — the Green Back Packers‘ all-time leading receiver — told the Reporter before the luncheon, which raised nearly $940,000 for Hopelink, a social services agency that helps homeless and low-income families.
“Hopelink is that program that gives those families an opportunity. And when you look at that, that puts a smile on your face, knowing that someone really cares for you,” Driver said. “When they asked me to be the keynote speaker, it was easy because I was able to tell my story. Hopelink is saying, ‘We’re not giving you a handout, we’re giving you a hand up,’ giving you an opportunity to better your life.”
The Drivers didn’t have a Hopelink-type organization in their area to lean on, but the family picked up its pieces each day and eventually emerged from its tough situation with a wealth of hope and help from others.
Dealing with homelessness wasn’t the only misfortune Driver experienced in his early life.
In a harrowing, life-changing incident, Driver was ready to swing a baseball bat at his mother’s boyfriend, who aimed a gun to the teen’s head during an altercation at the apartment they were living in for awhile. Driver wore the man’s sweater to school on a cold day and was confronted when he returned home. Driver rushed the man and the gun came out.
“I had an attitude because I really didn’t like him,” said Driver, who admitted to being a bad kid, who was a drug dealer and a thief. “My older brother was standing behind me and he was screaming, ‘Hit him!, hit him!,’ and I’m about to swing and my mother wakes up and jumps in front of both of us.”
Driver’s mom took the bat away from her son, but left the man with the firearm.
“Because she knew that if she took the gun from him, and left me with the bat, I might have killed him,” said Driver, who noted that his mom told the kids to leave the apartment and live with other family members because she was protecting her children from her boyfriend.
Driver said he now appreciates every day and every moment and strives to be an exceptional person. Of Hopelink, he told the crowd: “Let’s have faith and follow Hopelink. As we say in football, ‘Ready, set, go.'” His Donald Driver Foundation donated $5,000 to Hopelink.
With Green Bay, Driver won a Super Bowl and is the only Packer to record seven 1,000-yard receiving seasons (he finished his 14-year NFL career with 743 receptions for 10,137 yards). Driver also won a “Dancing with the Stars” title and is a New York Times Best Sellers list author.
“Everybody has an opportunity to be successful,” Driver told the Reporter. “I feel like now in my life that anything is possible, but I have to believe that it is. And I can’t let anyone define who I am — the only person that defines who I am is me. And I think that’s what everybody else has to believe in. Everyone has something. I tell people all the time, ‘If you’re not waking up every morning thinking how can you help someone else out, they why are you on this Earth?'”
Hopelink luncheon attendees also listened to Jesse Navarro, who spoke about his family’s homeless experience and its journey back to financial stability with Hopelink helping to lead the way.
“We lost hope. Hopelink believed in us and that we could make it,” Navarro said. Three other once-homeless families were also featured in a film that told of their relationship with Hopelink.
“The people that you heard from today, the people that have overcome homelessness and overcome all kinds of challenges in their lives — there’s so many of them in our region … it warms my heart to see other people wanting to help other people,” said Hopelink CEO Lauren Thomas following the luncheon.
Redmond City Council members Hank Margeson and Byron Shutz attended the event and were inspired by the speakers and with Hopelink’s work in Redmond and beyond.
“I think Donald Driver’s speech was (moving). The fact that he could relate to what it’s like to be without a home and struggling as a family and somehow make it through and persevere and have faith that there are others out there that will help you, that really struck home,” Margeson said.
Tami Lamp of Bellevue’s Caradigm software company said the stories are “motivating, encouraging us to continue to look in our community and give back.”