CHARLOTTE — When Panthers center Bradley Bozeman and his wife Nikki were just starting out, they lived in an RV.
It didn't take them long, once they got to Charlotte, to put down roots and nurture them.
Bozeman was named the Panther's nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award on Tuesday. The award recognizes an NFL player for his excellence on and off the field.
He took over as the team's starting center early last year and helped spark a run-game renaissance, but he was making a difference in his new community long before then.
Bozeman and his wife's initial charitable efforts were centered around anti-bullying programs, with an NFL player telling elementary and middle school students that he was bullied for his size and a speech impediment when he was younger, urging them to find the people they could lean on, and create the kind of network of support they need.
They established the Bradley and Nikki Bozeman Foundation in 2018 to expand on this work, but with the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, they were forced to pivot. When the only reliable meals each day for many of the students they talked to came from the cafeteria, the absence of regular school hours was plunging these same children into an even more immediate problem — food insecurity. Those efforts began immediately and have only grown over the years.
Bozeman began the SYNC snack program with community partners in his first two months here. The program (SYNC stands for Serving Your Neighbors and Communities) has packed over 17,000 boxes of food in the last year alone, directly impacting the city they call home.
"They're just a force," said Kay Carter, the CEO of Charlotte's Second Harvest Food Bank. "You can tell they're about family and about caring about the community.
"They're my favorite kind of people. They're down-home and they're kind, and they're compassionate, genuine in his initiatives, and meaning they really care about kids, especially."
In the last year, SYNC has also expanded to the neighboring communities of Matthews and Mint Hill as Bozeman and his family extend their charitable reach.
They also partner with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department on the program, with officers carrying the snack packs in their cruisers to be able to distribute them as they need to help children and, as importantly, create bonds within the community.
That mirrored their earlier work when he was a member of the Ravens, as they worked alongside the Baltimore Police Department to distribute food boxes and help close the gap between the community and law enforcement.
Creating that kind of relationship served two purposes — feeding those in the most need and bridging a divide between local officers and the communities they serve. Adding that human component to the assistance let the children of that area know people were looking out for them, another step in the initial focus of their efforts.
During their RV road trip in 2020, the Bozemans focused on anti-bullying assemblies in schools, spreading a message of support and inclusivity for vulnerable children. To date, Bradley and Nikki have shared their message with over 250,000 students.
They were initially approached by a member of a school's community outreach team about a child being bullied, and the Bozemans decided to go to the girl's school to eat lunch with her. When they arrived at the school, the principal asked if they could share the message with an entire student body. What was supposed to be lunch became a three-hour assembly, which included children sharing their stories of troubles at home and attempted suicides. They were so moved that they decided in the parking lot that day that it would become their lives work.
And since coming to Charlotte prior to the 2022 season, they've continued to add to those efforts and their family, proving that this is not a one-off charity appearance but a way of life for the couple.
As their family has grown (with their young son Brody and a second child on the way), they're making it clear that giving back will be part of who they are as a family.
"Our work is nowhere close to being over. You know, (Brody)'s going to grow up in this whether he likes it or not. I feel like we've set a pretty good example for him and are just going to continue to do that and continue to make sure that he knows what kind of impact you can have on people's lives and to start that ripple effect with them, for them to start a ripple effect on others.
"You know, that's what it's all about. And we just want to make the biggest impact we can."
As a player, Bozeman's no-nonsense and direct, going straight at the problem from his spot in the middle of it all.
And by addressing their needs at the heart of their communities, they're trying to solve problems at the grassroots level.
As a nominee, Bozeman will wear a Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year helmet decal through the end of the season in recognition of his accomplishments on and off the field.
All 32 nominees will be recognized for their achievements during the week leading up to Super Bowl LVIII. The 2023 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year winner will be announced during NFL Honors, a primetime awards special to air nationally on CBS on Thursday, Feb. 8.
Each nominee will receive up to a $55,000 donation, and the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award winner will receive a $250,000 donation to the charity of his choice. All donations are made possible by the NFL Foundation and Nationwide.
View photos of the Carolina Panthers Walter Payton Man of the Year Bradley Bozeman.