After an NFL career of opening holes and leading the way for Hall-of-Fame running back Walter Payton, former Chicago Bear Roland Harper continues to be out in front with his efforts on behalf of the 57 children and young adults with developmental disabilities who live at Elgin's Little Angels Center for Exceptional Care.
"Oh, my god, he's involved," Mary Jean Adkins, director of development for Little Angels, says of Harper. "He's been involved since Day One."
The 5th annual SUPERBowling Party benefits residents of Little Angels Center for Exceptional Care in Elgin for children and young adults with severe disabilities.
Event info: 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 2, at Arlington Lanes, 3435 N. Kennicott Ave., Arlington Heights
Event sponsor: Schaumburg-Hoffman Lions Club
Features: Unlimited bowling, a halftime buffet, and a silent auction with prizes including Disney passes, casino and spa vacations, restaurant certificates and sports memorabilia
Tickets: $15 for adults and $10 for children at the Lions Club website, shlions.org
While the 60-year-old Harper, who lives in Algonquin and works for a snow-removal company, wasn't around in 1958 when Little Angels skilled nursing, therapeutic and habilitation services opened as the dream of Elgin residents Pat and Bob Wasmond, the former professional football player is well into his second decade of working with the center. Harper's 30-year-old son, Calvin, has been a resident for years.
"He's been at Little Angels since he was 4," says Harper, who met the boy while dating his mother when Calvin was a teen. Harper says his recent divorce from Calvin's mother doesn't change his relationship with Calvin.
"He's my son. I'm still Calvin's dad," Harper says. "I'm going to be there until he doesn't need me anymore. I've always been involved with children with special needs."
Being part of the supporting cast fits Harper's style. As the Bears' last pick in Round 17 of the NFL draft in 1975, Harper worked hard to not only make the team but to earn a spot as a starter in the same backfield alongside the top pick Payton. Named the Bears top rookie instead of Payton that season, Harper found his role as the lead blocker for the gifted teammate. The two remained very close until Payton's death in 1999.
It was as a player that Harper found his calling helping those with disabilities. In 1977, a woman working with the Special Olympics brought some children with disabilities to the Bears training camp.
"I knew they couldn't understand what we were doing, but they were having so much fun," Harper remembers. "To see them gave me a different outlook on life."
He remembers volunteering for a ski trip to Galena with those kids.
"They were more brave than me because I wasn't getting on nobody's skis," Harper says with a laugh. When his girlfriend expressed some hesitation to form a serious relationship because she wasn't sure how the football player would cope with her son's cerebral palsy, Harper showed her a videotape of him with the Special Olympics children.
"All they need is a little love," Harper says.
When Harper tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his knee and missed the entire 1979 NFL season, many figured his career was finished. Harper says he drew strength from kids with disabilities.
"We gripe and complain about anything and everything," says Harper, who says he "was so humbled" by the kids with disabilities. "It just made me appreciate it that much more. I can rehab and get better, and these kids, they can't."
Calvin can't walk or talk, doesn't have full control of his arms, suffers from asthma and allergies, eats through a tube and has the mental ability of a preschooler. But he loves his visits from Harper, who also is father to twin sons Roland and Noland, 37, and daughter, Porcha, 34, who live in Texas.
"Calvin just adores him," Adkins says.
"I cut his hair. I'm a full-time dad," Harper says.
"He brings his clippers in and has him looking good," says Adkins, who calls Calvin "probably one of the happiest people you're ever going to meet."
A longtime volunteer and rider with the annual Little Angels Pledge Run fundraiser put on by the Elgin Area Organization of Motorcycle Riders, Harper wasn't the only volunteer impressed by the event and Little Angels.
"The children get such excellent care there," says Vivian Leabhart, secretary for the Schaumburg-Hoffman Lions Club. "They're very personally involved, so that's why we're happy to help them."
The club, which has members hailing from many suburbs, started an annual SUPERBowling Party on Super Bowl Sunday where members and guests go bowling with the Little Angels residents. This year's SUPERBowling Party kicks off at 4 p.m. Feb. 2, at Arlington Lanes in Arlington Heights. Tickets (shlions.org) include unlimited bowling, a halftime buffet, a few TVs showing the Super Bowl, and a silent auction, says Leabhart, who also serves as convention planner for Lions Club International in Oak Brook.
"Even if you hate the game, you can still have a good time," Leabhart says. "It's fun and easy to be a good person."
Being a good person is something Harper says he is always striving for. Talking freely about the two-year probation he was given in 2009 for his role in a business fraud case that sent another man to prison, Harper says he learned from that experience and now plays a key role as diversity coordinator and supervisor of crews for Tovar Snow Professionals out of East Dundee.
"We all love Roland," says Kathy Passarelli, executive assistant at Tovar, where employees know all about Calvin and Little Angels. "Roland's willing to help out wherever he is needed."
Overseeing snow-removal crews during this busy winter, Harper says he just does what is needed.
"I'm a team player. When I'm called on to block, I block," he says.
His first contract with the Bears was for $17,000 a year. At his peak, he made $150,000 for a season. In 1978, the Tampa Bay defense had never allowed an opponent to run for 100 yards in a game.
"Walter and I did it on the same night," says Harper, who outrushed the Hall of Famer 144 yards to 105 yards in that game. "Walter told me that would never happen again, and he was right."
Already booked for another Super Bowl event on Sunday, Harper says he's sorry that he'll miss the bowling event with his son. He knows how it feels to miss a Super Bowl party, having retired from football a couple of years before the Bears and his replacement and friend Matt Suhey had a blast winning Super Bowl XX.
Whether it's blocking for Payton, clearing snow or raising money to help Little Angels cope with the payment shortfalls in a state with many funding problems, "I'll do what I can," Harper says.
Making life easier for Calvin is his priority.
"If anybody tries to change that," Harper says, "I'll treat them like they were a Green Bay Packer."