TEMPE, Ariz. — Briyana Humphries wanted to get her husband, Arizona Cardinals left tackle D.J. Humphries, something he couldn’t buy for his birthday last December. After all, it’s hard to buy gifts for someone who can buy himself whatever he wants.
For the past four years, D.J. had talked about finding a way to help his hometown of Union, South Carolina. The more he brainstormed, the more Briyana listened. Whenever she’d push for him to finally start something, D.J.’s response was always the same: He wanted to do it when the time was right so he could dedicate time to it. Briyana’s counter was the same every time: There’s never a right time, not when you’re a full-time NFL player and a full-time dad.
So, for his birthday on Dec. 28, she began the process of creating his foundation. She had a logo made and put years of conversations to paper in an outline of everything D.J. wanted to accomplish. The foundation has been applied for in Florida with tax-exempt status and they are still waiting on a determination letter, according to Humphries’ agent. They named it Pee Wee’s House after D.J.’s late grandmother, Elizabeth Ann Means, whom everyone knew as Pee Wee and who had a special relationship with D.J.
Through Pee Wee’s House, which Briyana has been running, D.J. has set out to improve accessibility to affordable, quality fresh food as well as to teach financial literacy and empower young people to find jobs.
“It’s something very near and dear to my heart,” Humphries said.
Pee Wee’s ‘baby’
D.J. tries to downplay his birthdays as much as possible. He was at home in the Phoenix suburb of Ahwatukee when Briyana gave him the gift on Dec. 28, and, in typical D.J. fashion, he tried not to cry, just as he did when he found out Pee Wee died in 2009. He held it together, but barely, the emotions visible on his normally charismatic face.
“She was a very strong, stern woman,” D.J. said. “But, she was so loving and caring, and I always wanted to do something to make her proud.
“And me and my mother are her only legacy.”
D.J. and his grandmother were like “peas and carrots,” said D.J.’s mother, Keisha Means. They were always together during his childhood because Means, who had D.J. at 15 years old, worked the second shift. D.J. went to Pee Wee’s house every day after school, where they watched TV and he helped her cook. She loved taking him to her favorite place, Walmart, in her Nissan Sentra, Keisha remembered.
“Her and her baby,” Keisha said. “And when everybody saw Pee Wee, they saw D.J., and they knew, ‘That’s Pee Wee’s baby, don’t bother him.'”
It was Pee Wee who taught D.J. his manners and how to be a gentleman. She’d drop him at his house every night and by the time Keisha got home, D.J. was already sleeping.
Keisha said that Pee Wee had one goal for D.J.: for him not to end up on the streets.
“We were so worried about him being a follower and running in behind the wrong people because if he saw somebody doing it, he wanted to do it,” Keisha said. “He wanted to fit in as a little kid.
“She was like, ‘The streets are not getting my baby.’ And she was like, ‘I promise, the streets are not gonna get my baby.’ And that was always in her soul of raising him, like, ‘We’re gonna make sure that he is something.’ And she always told him, ‘I want you to be a leader, not a follower. You can’t do what other people are doing, things that they’re doing are not the right things. You can’t do that, D.J.'”
Pee Wee died in 2009 after a series of strokes left her on life support. D.J. was at football practice when Pee Wee’s last stroke hit, leaving her unable to communicate, Keisha said. All these years later, Keisha thinks D.J. not being able to see his grandmother in a vegetative state, a shell of her lively self, was a blessing in disguise.
“I don’t think he would have been able to take her like that,” Keisha said.
“I think she had the biggest impact besides his dad.”
Bringing food to the people
D.J.’s first priority with Pee Wee’s House was to tackle the food situation in Union.
On March 31, in a parking lot off North Pinckney Street, he hosted The Fresh Food Initiative, during which they gave away 1,333 boxes of food, each averaging 28 pounds of fresh produce that was sourced locally from a minority-owned company called Marvin’s Produce.
It was a drive-through event, and every box was given away, with some people on foot picking through the boxes to take what they could carry.
D.J.’s mission was to start changing the eating habits of the 7,000 people of his hometown and the 30,000 people of his home county, where finding fresh fruits and vegetables is an inconvenience, Keisha said. There simply aren’t the options to eat heathy, she added.
Driving through Union, you’ll see liquor stores, barbecue restaurants, places that serve everything fried 24 hours a day, but fresh food is hard to find, Briyana said.
The closest Whole Foods is an hour from Union.
Marion Kirby, the chief operations manager at Marvin’s, which provides produce within a 150-mile radius of its warehouse in Simpsonville, South Carolina, said the servings of fruit that people received in those boxes might have been the only fruit they’ll eat for weeks. For some, Kirby added, it might have been the first time they had tried some of the fruits and vegetables. He has seen that a lot in that area of South Carolina, where people are “hung up on fast food.”
“There’s people in need there, and they fulfilled that need with what they did with the boxes,” Kirby said. “In certain areas it’s pretty bad.”
Kirby said the produce gave people vitamins and minerals they might not have had for a while and could prevent them from getting sick.
With that in mind, D.J. — at 6-foot-5 and 305 pounds — knew that if he was going to start educating the people of Union on how to eat better, he had to do it himself.
“I think it’s just important for me to be able to be the person that tells them,” he said. “I’m from a small town, man. Outsiders come in, we’re not, pretty much, gonna listen to you. But for me, being from there, it’s different. Me telling my people what is going to be and how it can be better.”
D.J. going back to Union was enough to give the people there hope, Kirby said. And D.J. giving out the boxes of food was enough to get people to change, Kirby believes.
“If I was a kid and I had someone like that give me something, I want to eat it because I want to be like him,” Kirby said. “And I think that’s more powerful than anything he could say.”
Journey to healthier eating
When D.J. grew up in Union, Southern cooking reigned.
Nothing has changed, Keisha said.
“They’re still cooking how they were raised to cook,” she said.
That means butter, bacon fat and grease are staples of every meal. Greens go from healthy to delicious with the help of, well, all three. D.J. remembers eating canned vegetables growing up, out of convenience. Eating back then, he said, was about time and effort rather than reading the labels to see how much sodium was in each can.
Southern cooking, though, was a way of life, regardless of how well informed someone was. Take Pee Wee, for example. She went to school for foods and nutrition, Keisha said, and spent her life working in food service. She understood the benefits of a balanced meal, making sure her meals had a protein, starch, vegetable and grain. Yet she cooked her greens with bacon grease.
Food has always been a bond D.J.’s family shares. Him playing football, however, started leading his family on a journey to healthier eating. He was able to escape the food desert of Union when he went to the University of Florida. There, at 18 years old, he had access to a nutritionist. Even so, it took him until his second season in the NFL for it to click. He started eating right, learning how certain foods affect the body and how food causes certain inflammations.
“I didn’t even know that that was a thing,” he said. “Learning stuff like that, and I know that my people don’t know that. My people don’t know that. We just don’t. If we knew better, you would do better, and that’s a fact.”
D.J.’s family now eats healthier, too. They look for smarter alternatives and try to cut out the bad stuff in favor of the good stuff. Health issues run in D.J.’s family. Keisha has kidney disease and is hoping for a transplant. Pee Wee had high blood pressure when she died.
As with every rule, though, there are exceptions. One is Pee Wee’s fried chicken recipe, which Keisha re-creates about every other month.
D.J. tries to keep his personal life private, but seeing how the food drive — his vision to honor his grandmother brought to life — helped so many in Union touched him, Briyana said.
“I usually don’t talk about the stuff that really means the most to me because I’m sensitive about certain things like that,” D.J. said. “But it’s fun to finally be able to put it out in the world and do something good for my hometown.”