Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year 2012: Larry Fitzgerald headlines impressive list

USA TODAY Sports

Honoring a player for their charity work, the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award is an opportunity to see the good side of the NFL.

The only major award in the NFL season to be named for an individual, the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award recognizes not only a player's ability on the field -- but their charity work in the community off it as well. Also, unlike most awards, it's the only one with three clear-cut potential recipients. This year's award will be between Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas, and Jason Witten, tight end for the Dallas Cowboys.

It was 1999 that the ubiquitous 'Man of the Year' award was renamed for Walter Payton. Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Cris Carter was the first recipient under its new name.

All three of this year's nominees deserve recognition, so picking a "front-runner" seems odd -- but Fitzgerald will likely win the award this year. Back in August, the NFL gave Fitzgerald the league's humanitarian award for his wide array of charity work. Among the long list of organizations he supports, Fitzgerald helped to fund his own charity, named for his mother. The Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund was established as a means to help educate inner-city youth on HIV/AIDS and breast cancer, which Carol died of in 2003.

On the field, Fitzgerald did his most during a disappointing season. The Cardinals were plagued with issues at their quarterback position, but he was still effective, finishing with 798 receiving yards and four touchdowns.

Since arriving in Cleveland in 2007, Thomas has done far more than make six consecutive Pro Bowls. His charity work in the greater Cleveland area started shortly after being drafted, and he was named the Browns' man of the year in 2012 -- the second time in his career. He has made a large contribution to the "Kids in Need Resource Center" while also being a stalwart supporter of the Cleveland food bank. His charity work goes beyond borders, as he has traveled to Afghanistan to offer his time to the troops as a supporter of the USO.

Of this year's candidates, Thomas had the best on-field performance at his position. While it was another disappointing season in Cleveland, he was yet again a standout. Named to the Pro Bowl this year, he was also placed on the second All-Pro team.

Jason Witten led all tight ends in receptions, but his work in the community off the field is more impressive. His foundation places men in mentor roles in battered women shelters, and ensures that at-risk youth have positive role models in their lives. He has done work to prevent domestic violence in 2010, and plays a vital role in the NFL's 'Play 60' campaign to help end childhood obesity.

With 110 receptions, and over 1,000 yards -- Witten had one of his best seasons, and managed to serve the community admirable off the field.

Whether it's Fitzgerald, Thomas, or Witten, each of these men deserve the utmost praise for their work in the community. Too often we hear the negative stories surrounding football players, and the Walter Payton Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award is a reminder of how much good these players do.

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