By Steve Ginsburg
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten felt the sting of domestic violence as a youth and became determined to make a difference when he got the chance.
"A lot of people made sacrifices to help get you to this point (in the NFL)," the eight-time Pro Bowler told Reuters on Friday. "For me, my grandfather made a huge impact on my life.
"So when I made it to the NFL, giving back was in the forefront of what I wanted to be about. I wanted to give an opportunity to young kids who have had challenging times."
Witten is among three finalists for the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, given to the player who makes the greatest off-the-field impact to the community.
A pair of six-time Pro Bowlers are also being considered for the award, tackle Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
Witten went to live with his grandfather - a high school football coach - to escape his parents' violence.
To honor his grandfather, Witten's SCORE Foundation has created outreach programs and funded projects for victims of domestic abuse in Texas and his native Tennessee.
"This is one of those awards where everybody is a winner," said Witten, a finalist last year when Matt Birk of the Baltimore Ravens won the award.
Fitzgerald said he was merely following his late mother's drive to give back when he launched the First Down Fund, which works with children and families in crisis.
Carol Fitzgerald died in 2003 of breast cancer.
"Last time before she checked into the hospital before she passed away, she went to visit a friend of hers that was in the same hospital," Fitzgerald told a news conference.
"She always put others in front of her, even in the most severe times. Those were kind of examples she always set for us."
Thomas helps the Cleveland Foodbank as one of his many charitable endeavors.
"This is extremely humbling," Thomas said of being a finalist. "This is one of the highest honors that an NFL player can receive as an individual award."
A Pro Bowler every year since he entered the league as the third pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, Thomas said athletes have an obligation to be role models.
"We're thrown up there on the stage," he said. "We're given a tremendous opportunity to do good in our communities. It's our obligation, our duty, to give back because of what the fans and the cities have done for us."
The winner of the award will be announced during the NFL Honors gala on Saturday, the eve of Super Bowl 47 between the Ravens and San Francisco 49ers at the New Orleans Superdome.
(Reporting By Steve Ginsburg, Editing by Larry Fine)