Arizona Cardinals use Zoom, robots to give back to community at Thanksgiving time

Katherine Fitzgerald
Arizona Republic
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Kenyan Drake has a game plan, and he sticks to it. The Cardinals running back starts slow, and he builds up as he goes.

Kliff Kingsbury has attested to this many times throughout the season. He, of course, was talking about carries in an actual NFL football game, but Drake applies that mentality to other aspects of his life.

"I don't like to initially get a plate that's bigger than my stomach," Drake said. "I'm like, 'All right, let me start off with a little bit to kind of get my appetite going' and then, obviously, you gotta go back for seconds. ...  

"Seconds are definitely a must regardless, so you can't play yourself by getting too much on your first plate, and then you're just stuck."

Drake was sharing this strategy Friday over Zoom, not long after he also used Zoom to talk to kids at The Boys & Girls Club of the Valley – Gilbert Club. He was hosting a Thanksgiving celebration, with kids getting meals from Honey Baked Ham. 

Drake couldn't be there in person, but he's still been able to interact with kids during visits this season. Sometimes, that's even been in the form of a self-controlled robot. 

The Cardinals are finding a number of ways to give back to the community — especially around Thanksgiving — despite having to do so within the constraints of social distancing. The team and staff have gotten creative. They've used Zoom. They've used robots. And they've brainstormed it all with the goal of sustaining community relationships. 

Adam Richman puts a Corey Peters jersey on the Cardinals community service robot before the start of the drive-through turkey distribution, November 24, 2020, at South Pointe Elementary School, 2033 E Southern Ave., Phoenix.

The team purchased two robots ahead of the season, inspired by similar ones at the Phoenix Children's Hospital. The robots have screens so that players can still see and talk to people at schools, hospitals and other community events. 

Team owner Michael Bidwill did not want community interactions to stop. He just knew they needed to change a bit. 

"It's in complete compliance with all the safety restrictions, but still, we're bringing our presence directly to kids in the hospital beds, to kids in schools," Bidwill told The Republic in September. 

Adam Richman, community relations and alumni programs coordinator for the Cardinals, helps run the show behind the scenes. The first time he and the team used the robot was with running back Chase Edmonds at a Boys & Girls Club. 

"We hid it in an office, and we didn't want the kids to see it," Richman said. "So I said, 'OK, you can control it from there.' And (Edmonds) goes, 'What do you mean?' "

Valerie Vartie looks at Corey Peters on the Cardinals community service robot during the drive-through turkey distribution, November 24, 2020, at South Pointe Elementary School, 2033 E Southern Ave., Phoenix.

Richman quickly explained. Players can control the directions of the robot on their phone or on their computer, in an interface somewhat similar to FaceTime. Once Edmonds realized this, it was game time. 

"He goes, 'Oh, this is gonna be cool.' So then he starts driving and chasing the kids," Richman said, laughing.

There's still some art to it. Defensive lineman Corey Peters said that while you can see a lot, it can be hard to tell where curbs are if operating the robot outside like he did Tuesday. But that didn't stop Peters from getting the robot to dance at South Pointe Elementary School, where his foundation donated turkeys drive-through style to families.

Some days, like Tuesday, Richman is on site and can see those moments.

"I had a little boy today want to get out of the car and dance with the robot," he said. "He kept saying, 'I love you, I love you, I love you!' It was really cool. ... I don't know that anybody's really seen that kind of robot before."

Peters couldn't hear every interaction over the music, but he was having a great time from afar. 

"The excitement always comes across as excitement," he said.

Richman believes the Cardinals were the first to use robots, and he's seen other teams adopt it, too. Community relations departments from teams around the league are swapping ideas and tips much more this year. Instead of one yearly in-person meeting, they're hopping online once a month. 

While teams have been forced into ideas as they try to get creative, some of those may carry over into post-COVID seasons. The ease of connecting players with fans gives the Cardinals more options. 

With a quick call or text, and a few clicks, Richman and his team can add past and present Cardinals players to a Zoom to brighten someone's day. 

"We got (linebacker) Karlos Dansby and (quarterback) Carson Palmer, (defensive back) Aeneas Williams, some of our Hall of Famers that we don't get to see because they live so far across the country," Richman said. 

"And now, we've actually been able to engage them on Zooms and talking with high school kids around the state, and talking with cancer survivors, and really been able to broaden our horizons. So yeah, I believe we will use those in the future, and the robots as well."

The problem solving all comes at a time where the need is greater than before.

"When you think about it, it's been a tough year for everybody," Drake said.

Those needs can feel heightened this time of year. Cornerback Patrick Peterson, who's also expanded his outreach this year, provides meals at UMOM every Tuesday. He knows how much a meal can mean, and he was especially glad to host his turkey drive this year for families. 

"Honestly, this is the most important time that they need us," Peterson said. "It's a very vital and important moment in 2020 to try to continue to give back, especially during this time in the pandemic, when everybody is in such a tough situation. We just want to still show that we're here to help."

More:'We were really blown away': Patrick Peterson uses off day to give back ahead of Week One

Richman and the Cardinals are gearing up for a busy December, with school and hospital visits and re-imagined ways to run some holiday programs, like "Shop With A Jock." Some events are annual traditions with players and their foundations. Others are cases of new players getting involved. 

Drake grew up volunteering with his family during the holidays. He's kept that up, but he's also realized the extra strains this year has brought on families. He donated Nike equipment to the Gilbert Club earlier this year, including shorts, socks and drawstring bags.

But he has also taken advantage of using the robot for more routine visits outside the holidays, rolling up (quite literally) to eat pizza and talk Madden through the screen. 

Corey Peters on the Cardinals community service robot during the drive-through turkey distribution, November 24, 2020, at South Pointe Elementary School, 2033 E Southern Ave., Phoenix.

Peters also sees the multi-faceted ways that players can help families right now. While he misses the in-person interactions, he still sees how important it is to be out there and be there for students, even if that's in the form of a robot. 

"For me, I think it's just about trying to support in a variety of ways," Peters said. "Obviously, people need tangible things: food and support, money. People are really struggling financially.

"But also just from a spiritual and emotional standpoint, just trying to be able to provide some support for the teachers, for the parents at home, and maybe put a smile on the kids' faces just to make today a little bit easier on them."

Reach the reporter at or 480-356-6407. Follow her on Twitter @kfitz134.

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