MINNEAPOLIS –For the past three years, several Edison High School football players have shown up to support Xavier Rhodes at his annual holiday toy drive.
The student athletes arrive to the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital with large trash bags in hand, each of them filled with brand-new toys collected by the entire team and its coaches.
"It was good to give back to the kids," said Edison senior Jordan Green, who plays offensive and defensive tackle for the Tommies. "It just felt good to see them smile at all the toys that were there."
Last Friday afternoon, Jordan and his teammates were the ones who couldn't stop smiling.
The Tommies have never participated in the toy drive with an agenda in mind, other than making a difference in young people's lives around the holidays. But on Friday, Rhodes himself surprised the team as a guest coach to say 'Thank you' for all the support he's received for a cause that matters to him.
"They come surprise me at my [event], so [I thought], 'I'm going to come surprise them at theirs and see their reaction out of that.' And it was a good reaction – they loved it," Rhodes said.
Offensive Coordinator David Salzer recalled getting "the most sincere" email this past August, notifying him and the other coaches that Rhodes wanted to be part of a Tommies football game.
"That was very humbling," Salzer said. "This guy, who's a couple years younger than I am, who has millions of dollars, who's on TV every Sunday, he wants to come here and hang out with our kids and help coach."
Salzer and Head Coach JJ Swain kept Rhodes' visit a secret from the team, hoping the players would be caught off guard. Their plan worked.
When Rhodes walked down the hallway and into a lobby where the team knelt together for a pre-game meeting, most players were speechless, all of them staring at Rhodes in disbelief. A few of the young men clapped or gave quick cheers.
"I felt shock, definitely," said junior Giovanni Green. "It felt good to see an NFL player of that caliber there. It helped me get ready for the game. I had to stay focused at the same time, but it was fun. It was awesome."
Added junior Anthony Houston: "I kept smiling when I saw him … I was so excited."
Rhodes, wearing an Edison Football T-shirt, greeted the players and pumped them up for the game, reminding them to have fun. He joined in the huddle breakdown before taking the field.
Humboldt took an early 6-0 lead over Edison after scoring a touchdown and missing the PAT, but Rhodes encouraged the team to keep fighting and get control of the game. Shortly thereafter, the Tommies scored on a long touchdown pass and took the lead with a successful 2-point conversion.
CB Xavier Rhodes surprised the Edison High School football team by appearing as a guest coach and donating $1,000 to the program.
Rhodes was careful to not distract but patted players on the helmets as they exited the field and offered encouragement and friendly reminders – "Y'all have those helmets and shoulder pads for a reason!" – from the sideline, a place he's not used to being.
Houston, who plays wide receiver, kick returner, long snapper and safety for the Tommies, never got a chance to speak with Rhodes personally but was fueled by the cornerback's presence.
"When he was on the sideline, it made me want to just show out, just go hard," Houston said. "Play your hardest, play your best."
After their first touchdown, the Tommies continued to have success. Splash plays included three forced fumbles and recoveries, a kickoff return for a touchdown and a 55-yard pass into Humboldt territory.
The final score? Edison 56, Humbolt 40.
"Friday couldn't have gone any better," Swain said. "That was my first time that we put up more than 50 points in a football game, and I think it was because Xavier Rhodes was on our sidelines."
Rhodes, however, urged the players not to limit themselves and to be confident in their talents throughout the rest of the season.
"You don't have to have someone like myself to go out there and motivate you … [to be able] to play to another level," Rhodes said. "Come out there each and every day, and give it your all.
"I've been in [those] guys' shoes. There was a point in my career, when I was in high school, I wasn't highly recruited. I was the guy out there just playing ball and having fun," Rhodes said. "I'm a living testament to the point that working hard can get you to where I am right now."
Swain was thankful for Rhodes' willingness to spend time with the team and give some guidance. The 26-year-old head coach said he had a strong mentor and supporter over the years in his father, former Vikings cornerback John Swain. Now, he's grateful for the chance to conversely have a positive influence on these young athletes.
He explained that many students living in the Northeast Minneapolis community and attending Edison have already overcome a variety of obstacles throughout their lives, and Rhodes made an impact that will extend past Friday's game. Rhodes, in connection with the InSports Foundation, presented Edison Football with a check for $1,000.
According to Swain, the donation will be combined with fundraising efforts to cover team fees for students who may face financial hurdles.
"They won't have to worry about, 'Coach, can I play, because I don't have 20 dollars," Swain said. "I hope that brings our numbers up so it can take away that anxiety for some of these guys who might not have the means to get the money in but still want to play football.
"Many of [these young men] are in a position to play football for the first time here at Edison," Swain said. "We're getting guys who want to be a part of something, and they're searching for what that might be. So to have it be football, and to be in the position to say, 'I am your head coach, and for the rest of your life you'll remember me as maybe the first guy to introduce football to you … it means a lot. Because I know what football has done for me, and I hope it can do the same for them."
While it comes naturally for Rhodes to spend time with young people, joking around and asking them about their interests and their goals, several players were impressed at his laid-back demeanor.
"I was surprised because usually NFL players, they don't come back to high school and look back," said senior Javaree Cardwell, who received advice from one cornerback to another. "He told me to flip my hips, put some extra pep in my step."
Giovanni highlighted the contrast between Rhodes' on-field reputation and his true character.
"As a player, [I love] his intensity, his toughness, his aggressiveness," Giovanni said. "He gets in people's faces. He's letting you know he's there and that you're not going to have a great day matched up against him.
"[But] I was like, 'This dude's totally chill.' He genuinely cared to be here," Giovanni continued. "It was just awesome to see him and interact with him."
Rhodes said that spending time with the Tommies was important to him. He understands that he's looked up to not only for his football ability but also for his off-field contributions, and it's a platform he doesn't take lightly.
His high school football coach once told him that "image means everything" in a career on the gridiron, and it's a message he has taken to heart at each level of the game.
"You're being watched. Kids look up to you," Rhodes said. "I always try to [show] people who I am as a person, because that lets them know, 'Be you.'
"My message to people who look up to me is always, 'Be yourself. Everything else will fall into place.' "