Former NFL player Kurt Warner, left, presents Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals and Eli Manning (right) of the New York Giants with their awards for Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year at the 6th annual NFL Honors Saturday in Houston.


My commitment is to help sick kids. Their struggle isn’t easy, but their spirit, their laugh, their smile, and their belief that everything will be okay continually amazes me, and hurts me at the same time. If we and the NFL and others in our communities commit to step in, we can lessen that struggle, ease that hurt, spark that hope. I challenge everyone here to help some person in need. You choose. But go out of your way to make a difference in someone’s life. I promise you, it’s worth it.”

  • Eli Manning, from his weekend speech accepting the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award

Eli Manning has made a difference in more lives than he can count: infants, toddlers, teens, parents, grandparents and more.

Count 18-year-old Jaron Rawls, a Mississippi State and Dallas Cowboys fan, in that number.

Jaron Rawls, right, with with father, Peyton

Rawls, of Pearl, was 17 in November of 2015 when he was hospitalized for severe headaches, fatigue and night sweats, among other symptoms. Doctors thought he might have meningitis. The eventual diagnosis was worse: acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the bone marrow.

Said Peyton Rawls, Jaron’s father, “I honestly don’t know what we would have done had it not been for the good people at Batson Hospital. I guess we would have gone to St. Jude’s but I don’t know how we would have done that and kept jobs.”

“Because of Batson, we were able to stay right here in Jackson and get the best care possible. We are forever indebted to the doctors and nurses at Batson. They have become like family.”

Eli Manning, who shares the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award with Larry Fitzgerald, has been a bullish donor, fund-raiser and advocate for Batson, the only medical facility in the state devoted exclusively to the care and treatment of sick and injured children and adolescents. Nearly 80,000 Mississippi children are treated annually in its hospital, clinics and emergency room.

Eli and wife Abby have given $1 million and helped raise $2.5 million more. Manning is the namesake of the Eli Manning Children’s Clinics at University of Mississippi Medical Center,

That is why Jaron Rawls and his family, devout Mississippi State and Dallas Cowboys fans, have become big fans of the man who has been the star quarterback of both those teams’ arch-rivals.

“Let’s put it this way, our tune has really changed when it comes to Eli Manning and the entire Manning family,” Peyton Rawls said. “Sure, we want the Cowboys to win when they play against the Giants, but we pull for Eli otherwise. We don’t see him as an athlete or a sports star, we see him as really person who really cares about kids. What he’s done for Batson is just unbelievable.”

Rick Cleveland

Jaron Rawls’ chemo treatments, through a port in his chest, began the day after he was diagnosed. He has also undergone a spinal tap. He was pronounced in remission a year ago last month. Still, he goes in for treatments once a month and takes a daily dose of chemo orally.

“These nurses and doctors have been with him through all of it, all the side effects, all the ups and downs,” Peyton Rawls said. “They have treated Jaron as if he were their little brother.”

Jaron now attends classes at Holmes Community College’s Ridgeland campus. He works 25 hours a week at Office Depot in Pearl.

“We’re proud of him and the way he has responded to all that has happened to him,” Peyton Rawls said. “He wasn’t what you’d call a studious student in high school, but he really studies now. He was good high school soccer player and he wants to play soccer again as soon as he’s physically able.”

Meanwhile, Eli Manning hopes his winning the Payton Man of the Year award will help raise more money for his many children’s health causes, which besides his efforts at UMMC also include the March of Dimes, the American Red Cross, Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Make A Wish Foundation and American Heart Association. Manning also has been active in the Tackle Kids Cancer program at Hackensack (N.J.) University Medical Center near New York.

Because Manning was selected as the Walter Payton Man of the Year, a total of $1 million will be donated to worthy causes in his name from the NFL Foundation.

“You don’t help people to get awards,” Manning said. “But when it’s an opportunity to raise more awareness for your charities, and possibly raise more money, which will possibly lead to healing more kids, helping more people, that’s really why this award is so special. I definitely think because of it we’ll be able to help more people, and that’s a great thing.”

Jaron, among thousands of Mississippi children, surely would agree.

Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at

Check out other news at

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Take our 2023 reader survey

Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.