Cleveland Browns tight end Randall Telfer has battled injuries throughout his career, dating back to his college days at USC. He’s played in 28 regular-season NFL games, all but one of which ended in a loss. The only NFL franchise he’s known in his three-year career is coming up on its one-year anniversary since its last victory.
But for Telfer, amid all the struggles, he believes he’s found the secret to his happiness and the best anodyne for self-healing when things might appear to be at their toughest. It’s called “Give Back Tuesday” — Telfer’s weekly ritual of spending his one off day during the season doing something for his community.
It might involve visiting kids at a school or a hospital. It has included ride-alongs with police officers as a way of understanding their roles and helping bridge the gap, especially amid tensions in the African-American community. Telfer also sat in on the NFL’s meetings about race relations, the anthem protests and the movement started by Colin Kaepernick.
A funny thing happened along the way. Telfer found himself quite hooked by it.
“When I first started going out and doing things in the community, it was almost like a high for me,” Telfer said by phone this week. “I kind of got addicted to it. I try to do it every Tuesday, where it’s my off day and I don’t have a lot of football responsibilities. It became my day to give back any way I could.”
So when most athletes are resting their bodies, and quite understandably so, especially for a player such as Telfer, who has spent a lot of time nursing injuries, he found the effects of community work to be surprisingly healing.
The Browns are 0-14 this season heading into a Christmas Eve game against the Chicago Bears at Solder Field, and Telfer is dealing with a persistent knee injury. But the Browns’ nominee for the 2017 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award has found a way to keep a smile on his face — and on those of many others.
“You go to the facility, you grind, you work, you work, you work … and our record shows right now: It’s been a tough season,” Telfer said. “It’s been tough around the building. Everyone needs that time outside the facility. So when I get out and meet people who are less fortunate than I am, or do things in the community that might be able to help, that’s what keeps me going. That’s another form of motivation.”
There are others, of course. Telfer is the son of Ghanian parents, who immigrated to the United States and coincidentally were from the same section of the capital city, Accra, but didn’t meet until they arrived here, introduced by a common friend.
His father, Michael, arrived with $150 to his name and took jobs at a shoe company and a tile company to make ends meet before entering the insurance field. Telfer’s mother, Sophia, came to the U.S. to attend nursing school.
While they worked to support the family, Randall and his sister, Natalie, were watched — along with several of their cousins — by his maternal grandmother. She was the one who helped guide Telfer in the simplest of ways.
“A lot of the things you should learn at a young age — treat others the way you want to be treated — we got from her,” Telfer said. “It’s so simple but so important.”
That, as much as anything, Telfer said, gave him his moral compass and led him to giving back. As athletically gifted as he was, there was more of an emphasis placed on him being a good person and one who valued his education than there was on sports.
Nonetheless, despite not playing football until high school, Telfer was recruited to USC by Pete Carroll, redshirting for the Trojans in Carroll’s final season there. Telfer finally got on the field in 2011, making as much impact on the field as he did off it, winning the school’s Chris Carlisle Courage Award and Bob Chandler Award, given to the athlete who demonstrates the greatest combined contributions in athletics, academics and character. He graduated in 2013 with a degree in political science and is close now to finishing his Master's in communications management and marketing.
When he arrived in Cleveland as a sixth-round pick of the Browns in 2015, Telfer was recovering from a foot injury. He had time to look around at some of the team leaders who were taking on way more responsibilities than football.
“I knew that there were some community outreach efforts,” Telfer said. “But I wasn’t sure about what individual athletes were doing what. I saw that firsthand when I got to Cleveland, and having guys like Joe Thomas and Gary Barnidge in the same building kind of set my course for my career. I wanted to model myself like them. So giving, so generous in the community.”
Telfer vowed to follow their lead, and he started his #GiveBackTuesdays campaign last year, the first season he was able to get on the field for the Browns, continuing it through this season. On each of the days he has reached out in different ways. There have been the visits with local police and first responders, trying to connect them with the community.
There was the back-to-school event in which he helped give students new backpacks. There have been surprise visits to other schools and homeless shelters. The work with the NFL's “My Cause, My Cleats” program — an anti-bullying campaign in schools by educating students and parents. And when he’s back home in Los Angeles, Telfer spends time with children receiving treatment at LA Children's Hospital.
Each Tuesday a different cause. Each one noble in their own right.
“One thing that always struck me about Randall is his unrelenting desire to make positive use of his down time,” said his agent, Cameron Weiss. “Where a lot of guys understandably want to relax or recharge their batteries during their time away from football, for as long as I’ve known him, Randall has taken that time to try and help others within his community — whether it’s in Southern California or Cleveland.
“It really motivates you to take account of what your choices are with those moments in your own life and the good that you could potentially do. We’re incredibly proud to know him and grateful for his recognition this year.”
Telfer said he gained a fresh perspective from his ride-along with the Cleveland Police Department, speaking with officers about what they do and what they see on a daily basis. He wanted a better understanding of how to improve relations between police and the community at large, especially in what appears to be a difficult climate.
“My job is as a professional athlete, and I have a responsibility to my community. And those police officers, they have a job to do and a shared responsibility with the people,” Telfer said. “I wanted to see up close how they operated and the challenges they faced and what we could do to help, but also to have a discussion about the other side of things.
“In the midst of all the political turmoil and police brutality that’s out there, of course emotions were running high, especially with minorities. The way I work is I try to take emotions out of it; I tried to see things as rationally as I could. I think I was able to do that. They told me what it was like to be a police officer, what their job was like, and what might have been going through the minds of the officers who have been involved in the escalating situations and the violence that led to some tragedies.”
Telfer acknowledges that there are plenty of issues on that front that still need addressing, gaps that still need bridging. The same applies to the anthem issues in the NFL. The pre-game kneeling might have been minimized, and the tensions related to them have been eased somewhat, but there is still more work to be done, Telfer said, on that front.
Telfer attended the NFL’s meetings in New York to discuss the anthem debate earlier this season with two other Browns teammates and owner Jimmy Haslam, and his wife, Dee. Although Telfer was thrilled with the support from the Haslams — “they’re top notch, first class … I respect them a lot,” he said — he remains a bit ambivalent about how the meeting was handled and what the end result will be to help solve the issues that the players raised.
“It’s tough to say,” Telfer said. “Just the idea that we were asked to speak with the commissioner and the NFL owners, I felt like that was a good start toward progress. But it’s hard to say that we’ve really progressed from that point.
“A lot of the owners may say that there has been progress because there aren’t as many players kneeling for the anthem. But guys who did that were not trying to disrespect the anthem or the flag; there were some big issues they were concerned about. That discussion needs to continue.”
Like others, Telfer felt Kaepernick should have been there — whether that was the fault of the players themselves or with the league, he’s not sure.
“The person who spearheaded that movement, it would have been helpful to have him there,” Telfer said. “At that point, it was the players against the owners, and we don’t want that. But the groundwork is there. Obviously, it can’t all be fixed in one day.”
But for Telfer, the one day per week he gives back — to his communities and to the NFL — is just Phase One of his contributions. They’ve changed his perspective entirely and opened up the possibilities for what lies ahead. Not just for him during his football career but also for when those days are over.
“At one point I thought I might just try to get one of those 9-to-5 jobs when my career was over,” he said. “But now, doing all this community work — and it’s only getting bigger going forward — the future is just so bright. There’s so much to do and so much that can be done. It’s just that little sliver, but I’ll tie whatever I can into community outreach and see where it takes me.”