NFL Man of the Year Award: Anquan Boldin edges Eli Manning and the Saints’ Ben Watson _lowres

Associated Press/NFL photo by JOHN SALANGSANG -- Anquan Boldin of the San Francisco 49ers accepts the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award at the fifth annual NFL Honors at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on Saturday in San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO — New Orleans tight end Benjamin Watson, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning and San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin took center stage at the NFL Honors awards show on Sunday.

And their centerpiece roles had very little to do with what they’ve done on the field.

Watson, Manning and Boldin were finalists for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, annually awarded for a player’s impact on the community, as well as on the field. Boldin, the veteran San Francisco 49ers receiver, won the award, but true to the spirit of the award, both Manning and Watson had already said they were happy just to make the final three.

“You don’t lose this award,” Manning said on Friday. “To be recognized, to be here, we’re all winners, and the charities and the organizations that we work with are the real winners here.”

All three NFL stars play a central role in their communities, reaching out through financial help, holiday giveaways and support for organizations tasked with battling things like domestic violence, racial turmoil in the country, children’s cancer and water problems in Africa, big issues that rarely have a face.

But what can get lost in the shuffle is the impact their outreaches make on a personal level.

Watson’s One More Foundation, like Boldin’s Anquan Boldin Foundation, often provides scholarships for students in need. A couple of years ago, while Watson was still playing in Cleveland, a young woman reached out after both her parents lost their jobs, asking help to continue the schooling she’d already started.

For cases like that young woman, the goal for Watson’s foundation is simply to carry the hope and love of Christ to those in the community.

“A lot of them come through requests,” Watson said. “A lot of them are organic, our ideas. We have things that we’ve been doing since I was in Boston that are kind of our staples, but then outside, we add in things like funding mission trips to other countries, or providing scholarships for school, or helping get behind projects in other parts of the world, kind of on a case-by-case basis. We like to keep ourselves open. Some people have a call that they want to go for, and that’s great, but we want to be able to provide change where it’s needed.”

Boldin and Manning embody the same qualities. Manning’s chief passion has been for children’s causes, but he also stepped in to work with the American Red Cross after both Hurricane Katrina in his hometown of New Orleans and after Hurricane Sandy hit the New York area. Boldin has been active in fighting hunger in Africa, but he also works hard to help underprivileged students at all levels get an education.

Watson’s hope is that the example set by players like them make an impression on younger players.

“There’s more than us. Many people are worthy of these nominations,” Watson said. “I think it’s great to highlight these things, and not only for us, but for the next generation of players in college to start gettinginvolved in the community. As a young player, I saw people who donated their time, donated their money, brought their families to other parts of the world, and that had an effect on me.”

The NFL rightly takes a lot of heat for the conduct of some of its players, part of the reason that the league has cracked down on its personal conduct policy in the last couple of years.

Men like Boldin, Manning and Watson are proof that an NFL player can make headlines for very different reasons.

“We don’t do it for the accolades,” Boldin said. “We do it because it’s what’s truly in our hearts.”