Success stories surround Derek Jeter at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. Jeter's foundation shows children how great baseball, and life, can be. / H. Darr Beiser for USA Weekend
Happy holidays: Turn 2 event in Portage, Mich., 2009 / H. Darr Beiser for USA WEEKEND
The Most Caring Athlete Award
Since 1994, USA WEEKEND has saluted professional sports figures for their compassion. Today, we honor Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. Tuesday at Yankee Stadium, he will receive the award and a $5,000 grant to his Turn 2 Foundation.
About Derek Jeter
His foundation's greatest hits
Jeter's Turn 2 Foundation (turn2foundation.org) has awarded more than $11 million in grants since 1996 to promote healthy living and leadership skills to young people.
Scholarships: Awarded to a minimum of 40 students annually.
It was unlike any team New York Yankees star Derek Jeter had encountered in baseball. His sister, Sharlee, had arranged for a group of kids from Washington Heights near Harlem to play in a youth league. But there was one problem: The team couldn't score a run.
So on a day off during the season, Jeter volunteered to coach a game. Later that day, Sharlee Jeter got a phone call from her brother, checking in from McDonald's, where he was treating team members to lunch to celebrate their first run of the season. “I never heard so much screaming,” Sharlee Jeter says. “They didn't win the game, but with that run scored, you would have thought they won the World Series.”
In his classic cool manner, Jeter downplays his contribution. “These were kids who literally had never played baseball in their lives, and we were trying to show them how great the game can be,” Jeter says. “It was also a way to teach them how to work together. I may have given a few pointers, but I can't claim credit for their first run. I have to admit, though, it was the highlight of the season.”
The combination of mentorship, teamwork and success is a signature of Jeter's community efforts through his Turn 2 Foundation. (“Turn 2” refers to a baseball term for a double play, as well as the concept of providing young people with someone to turn to when in need.) With efforts in three areas — West Michigan, where he was raised; New York City, because of the Yankees; and Tampa, where he lives — his foundation teaches young people to make positive choices and lead healthy lives. For his efforts, Jeter is USA WEEKEND's 2010 Most Caring Athlete.
Since 1996, more than 5,000 young people from preschool through high school have taken part in Turn 2 programs. Grants of more than $11 million have been awarded for youth initiatives, including those that treat and help prevent substance abuse. Jeter's Leaders, a program for high school students, promotes healthy living, academic achievement and community involvement.
As a result of these and other program initiatives, Jeter — in addition to winning his fifth World Series championship with the Yankees last season — received Major League Baseball's 2009 Roberto Clemente Award for outstanding community service.
Jeter, 36, stays active in his foundation. Its mission reflects his interests and upbringing. He grew up in Kalamazoo, Mich., with strong, supportive parents. His father, S. Charles Jeter, is a former substance-abuse counselor. The rules of the house were simple but firm: no alcohol or drugs, and high grades must be maintained. Otherwise, no sports.
“The minimum grade-point average was a 3.0,” says Sharlee Jeter, who is president of Turn 2.
Derek Jeter laughs at his sister's remark.
“She told you it was a 3.0?” he asks. “Maybe it was for her. My mom and dad set the bar higher for me.” (For the record, Sharlee Jeter notes, both siblings always aimed for 4.0.)
At the start of each school year, Jeter's parents had him sign a contract agreeing to those expectations. For him, it was no problem, even if it meant following a curfew every weekend.
“In my mind, this is what I needed to do to achieve my goals,” he says. “I knew that becoming a professional athlete would require that I work hard and stay out of trouble. Besides, the curfew was never a big deal. I was asleep every night by 10, anyway.”
Jeter would spend afternoons playing baseball and, if there was no game or practice, bouncing his ball against the side of his house. It all paid off. He made the Kalamazoo Central varsity team as a freshman and was named USA TODAY's High School Player of the Year in 1992. The Yankees drafted him with the sixth overall pick the same year — a good fit for Jeter, who was born in New Jersey and went back during summers to visit relatives.
“We'd always have the Yankees game on TV,” Jeter says. “They became my team, because I always liked to think deep down that I was a Jersey guy. Besides, my dad rooted for the Detroit Tigers, and you gotta pick a team that's different from your dad's, right?”
As a Yankee, Jeter won American League Rookie of the Year in 1996. That same year, he launched Turn 2 after seeking advice from his father about how to get started. Launching a foundation isn't typical for a first-year professional athlete, but Jeter was resolute.
“One of my Yankee heroes was Dave Winfield,” he says. “I did some research on him and found out he had his own foundation. I knew then that I wanted to do the same thing, because when you make it as a ballplayer, you should use that opportunity to give back.”
The foundation's focus on drug and alcohol awareness is a priority for Jeter because of his upbringing. “This is what my dad spent his life doing,” he says.
Aaron Sultan, 17, has participated in the Jeter's Leaders program for four years while attending high school in the Bronx. He was encouraged by a teacher who noticed his organizational skills and responsibility in eighth grade. The program helped him sharpen those traits and be a mentor to his peers. He also learned how to discuss serious topics in a way that engaged students. “You can't say ‘Just don't do drugs,' because they're not going to listen to that,” Sultan says.
Many Jeter's Leaders alumni return during college breaks or after graduation to volunteer or work for the foundation.
“That's when you know you've made a positive impact,” Jeter says. “When you've seen a kid go through the programs return to help out, you know you've made a difference.”