Saturday, July 7, 2007 | In today’s lucrative pro sports world, many athletes seek a charity to support in the name of their foundation.

Fundraising efforts of charities, obviously, benefit from the name recognition that a high-profile athlete provides.

So if there was a match made in public relations heaven, it was Chargers outside linebacker Shawne Merriman with San Diego homeless projects. Merriman, after all, spent time in his youth with his mother in homeless shelters in Washington, D.C.

But it wasn’t a marketing wiz that brought together Merriman — a two-time Pro Bowl pick his first two NFL seasons — with San Diego’s Alpha Project for the Homeless.

“He found us,” said Bob McElroy, president of the Alpha Project. “He just showed up unannounced one night.”

And he’s been there many more nights since then. Life threw knives at Merriman early on, but rather than be cut by the blades, he has grabbed them by the handles and made them tools.

“He doesn’t come with an entourage or with the media,” McElroy said. “He sits on the end of a bed and spends hours talking with homeless people. Some of the things he’s done for us, I’ve wanted to send out a press release. But he won’t let me.”

Merriman, who turned 23 in May, is widely regarded as the best outside linebacker in the NFL as he enters his third NFL season. One reason — two, actually — is he can speed rush an offensive lineman one play and bull rush him the next. He’s equally effective at both techniques, so pick your poison.

But when it comes to his support of homeless causes, he’s strictly a read-and-react player. Even as a student at University of Maryland, he started a winter coat drive that has continued after he left for San Diego.

In early March 2006, Merriman learned that a San Diego winter homeless shelter would be closed down 20 days early, confronting people with rainy weather. The shelter needed $95,000 in donations to remain open, and Merriman’s check for $7,500 was the largest donation that met the budget shortfall.

Merriman said at the time, “I experienced homelessness several times when I was a kid and I now want to help people. It’s a tough situation to be in. Sometimes all it takes is a little push to help people turn things around. I want to do all that I can to help.” 

That was shortly after Merriman’s first pro season with the Chargers as the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. His nickname, “Lights Out,” had gained trademark recognition around the league.

Since then, he has established the Lights On Foundation that targets homeless people and families. Last weekend, he sponsored a free football clinic on Friday, a Community Day Saturday afternoon and a Comedy Jam at 4th&B Saturday night.

The free clinic was for youths ages 8 to 12 at the Joan Kroc Salvation Army Center on University Avenue. The kids were invited by the Salvation Army and the Alpha Project.

The Community Day was at the Children’s Learning Center and the Door of Hope, which provides a transitional home for homeless mothers and their children. Many of the mothers are overcoming addiction. Merriman and community members restored and painted the center.

McElroy said Merriman spends time at the Door of Hope as well as the Neil Good Day Center at 17th and K streets.

“He enjoys hanging out with these folks,” McElroy said. “I’ve seen him signing their sleeping bags, tattered shirts and ball caps. We have homeless senior citizens that are absolutely giddy that he will sit there and talk with them. He has not forgotten where he came from, and I don’t think he ever will. I’ve met Hollywood actors, politicians and presidents, but I’ve never met someone with a more genuine heart than Shawne.”

At the start of the clinic, Merriman gathered the youths around him for a pep talk.

“Listen to the people who are out here that are trying to teach you the right things,” Merriman said. “That’s why I’m out here. Have some fun. But the No. 1 thing, is stay in school and do what you’re supposed to do. Listen to the people that are trying to tell you the right things to do.”

Then Merriman and the youths put their hands together and shouted with pre-game enthusiasm, “Lights out!”

Maybe it should have been, “Lights on!”

Tom Shanahan is’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at Or send a letter to the editor.

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