Trio making a difference off the field _lowres

New York Giants' Eli Manning, San Francisco 49ers' Anquan Boldin and New Orleans Saints' Benjamin Watson pose for photos after they were named the finalists for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award at a news conference Friday, Feb. 5, 2016, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

SAN FRANCISCO — Eli Manning, Benjamin Watson and Anquan Boldin met more than a decade ago.

Back in 2003, Manning and Watson were rookies preparing for their first NFL action. Boldin was coming off of a surprising rookie year, and all three trained at the IMG Academy.

Now the trio find themselves linked together as the three men nominated for the prestigious Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, the award annually given to the NFL player for their accomplishments both on and off the field. The winner will be announced on Saturday night during the NFL Honors show.

For Manning and Watson, the hope is that their example inspires the next generation to get involved in their communities.

“The guys that make mistakes, that’s the stuff that sells papers and creates drama,” Manning said. “There’s a lot of athletes out there that are making a difference in people’s lives, that are involved in a number of charities and things, raising awareness.”

Manning has been a champion of children’s causes, founding a children’s clinic in Jackson, Miss., establishing the Manning Family Fund at Ole Miss and the March of Dimes, as well as involvement with the American Red Cross. Watson, who wrote “Under Our Skin” in an effort to spark conversations about racial reconciliation, works with a number of different charities through his One More Foundation. Boldin’s foundation has a similar reach, offering scholarships to students and heavy involvement in issues in the African countries of Ethopia and Senegal.

“There are many men working in their communities,” Watson said. “Many men care about the communities where they came from, the communities where the play and communities around the world.”

Hall of Fame

One of the most wide-open Hall of Fame votes in years looms on Saturday.

Only legendary Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre is a lock to go into the Hall on the first vote, and that means the voters will have a chance to put in several players who deserve enshrinement but haven’t been able to break through.

And three have strong Louisiana ties.

Former Saints placekicker Morten Andersen, the NFL’s all-time leading scorer, is a finalist for the third time, although he hasn’t been able to make the cutdown to 10 the past two seasons. Andersen, who made 565 field goals in his career and scored 2,544 points, faces a long road to enshrinement; only one kicker, former Chiefs and Packers kicker Jan Stenerud, has ever been voted into the Hall of Fame.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers guard Alan Faneca, a New Orleans native who played at LSU, is in his first year on the ballot. A six-time All-Pro, Faneca has a strong case to go in on the first ballot, but offensive linemen have often had to wait a few years, and Rams tackle Orlando Pace is still waiting for his turn.

The third, the late Ken Stabler, is a Seniors Committee member. Stabler, who died of colon cancer in July, made his name with the Raiders and won a Super Bowl before a late-career run with the Saints, faces an easier road to the Hall as a Seniors Committee nominee than he did in his first run.

Lobby for return

Watson, who is 35 years old and will be a free agent this offseason, wants a chance to reprise his surprising star turn in New Orleans next season.

He proved he’s still got plenty left in the tank after catching a career-high 74 passes for 825 yards and tying a career best with six touchdown catches in 2015.

“I had a good conversation with Sean (Payton) and Mickey (Loomis), and I love the Saints organization,” Watson said. “I’d love to be playing there. If not there, we’ll see where else. I think I’ll know more in about a month or so.”

Watson, who made Jimmy Graham‘s departure a non-factor in the passing offense with his ability to move the chains, would love to return to work with Drew Brees.

But he’s been around the league long enough to know there are a dozen different factors at play as the team moves forward.

“It is exciting to have the possibility to return there, but as an NFL veteran, you know how it works,” Watson said.

Watson loved his role in the offense last season, and he also likes the environment the Saints have put around him.

“I like being in New Orleans,” Watson said. “I like the community. The organization’s always treated me well, they’ve treated my family well, they’ve supported anything we’ve done. Any charitable endeavor we’ve done, they’ve supported it.”

Note to self

James Anderson had something to prove when he signed with New Orleans in early November.

A decorated veteran linebacker who spent seven seasons in Carolina and one as a starter, Anderson had bounced around to four different teams in 2014 and 2015 before landing with the Saints.

Anderson played 108 defensive snaps in six games down the stretch, made 16 tackles and started against Carolina, proving that he could still contribute.

“I think it was bigger to prove to myself,” Anderson said while making the rounds through Radio Row at Super Bowl 50 on Friday. “Everybody has their own opinion, but usually at the end of you’re career, everybody else knows it’s over before you do. I proved to myself I can still play, and I’m looking forward to coming back next year.”

Anderson did not play on defense in the final two games of the season, but he’s optimistic that the Saints might still need his services next season.

“I hope so,” Anderson said. “I have a good feeling about it, but we’ll just have to see what happens in the next month or so.”