SANTA CLARA, Calif. — On a recent fall day, San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Arik Armstead was penciled in for a quick visit to Sunnydale, one of San Francisco’s largest housing projects.
Ashlei Hurst, the director of resident services at Mercy Housing and a longtime friend of the Armstead family, invited Armstead to tour Sunnydale, which was built in 1940.
What he saw was what he now calls a “lack thereof,” a place full of people in buildings that weren’t suitable for living. He saw police cars driving past with four officers inside armed with shotguns hanging out the window as they cruised the neighborhood.
Armstead was only supposed to stay for about 30 minutes, but he couldn’t just make a cameo appearance. For two and a half hours, Armstead walked around the neighborhood, speaking to residents, business owners and local leaders about what they need and asked how he could help. Quietly, Armstead listened and absorbed his surroundings. He could see the struggle and hear the desperation.
“I saw a community that just has been kind of thrown off by the wayside and kind of a place that’s been forgotten and hasn’t been nourished,” Armstead said. “It was real eye-opening for me. … I don’t know if a lot of people really know about Sunnydale and what’s going on up there. Just seeing the conditions that people are living in and just the lack of a lot. That always inspires me and keeps me going knowing that there’s a lot of work.”
Indeed, for Armstead the work that needs to be done never truly ends. In fact, it’s only beginning. That applies to what he’s doing on the field as one of the Niners’ starting defensive tackles, but there are plenty of significant projects to do off the field as well.
He has the means to help. Armstead is in the second year of a five-year, $85 million contract, and as a former first-round pick (No. 17 overall in 2015), he’s earned a little more than $46 million in his career so far.
For Armstead, making the world a better place starts in his home community of Sacramento and extends to the Bay Area.
What started as the inaugural (and free) Arik Armstead Football Camp for kids back in 2015 has grown into the establishment of the Arik Armstead Academy in September, which came with his $250,000 donation to Mercy Housing California. The Armstead Academy serves more than 400 students in the Sacramento City Unified School District, offering academic support, after-school programming and career exploration opportunities.
At 6-foot-7, 290 pounds, Armstead cuts an imposing figure that belies his soft-spoken nature. His passion for helping others has led him to a second consecutive Walter Payton Man of the Year Award nomination and, more importantly, left a lasting impact on those who have witnessed his evolution as a philanthropist and how that has mirrored his growth as a man.
“In terms of what he does off the field, for his community, for our community, it’s insane,” 49ers linebacker Fred Warner said. “It’s an inspiration to not only me but the entire team. All of us see it. It makes me only want to work harder at being better for the community and doing stuff for other people.”
‘He didn’t forget’
Armstead’s own inspiration comes from a combination of conversations, life experiences, reading and studying the world around him.
Over the past few years, those factors have led Armstead to make childhood education and social justice his primary focus. That wasn’t necessarily how he always planned it, but the more he read and heard and reflected on his own experiences, the more it made sense.
Armstead remembers being in second or third grade and struggling with his reading, specifically when reading aloud. He still remembers arriving at school an hour early to work on it.
Armstead eventually got the hang of it thanks in part to teachers and family who were willing to help. Christa Armstead, Arik’s mother, would even take him to pick out something from Dollar Tree in exchange for doing well in class that week.
Nearly two decades later, it’s not lost on Armstead that many kids don’t have that same support system to keep them from falling behind.
“I’m sure he can relate, and when you can relate, it makes you relatable, and I think that’s why he’s so great at what he does — the work he’s doing today with kids because he can relate,” Christa Armstead said. “He didn’t forget that he was a kid once upon a time and he had some struggles and he had a lot of support to help him overcome any obstacle he would have in life. And he realizes not every kid has that. So, his work today is to somehow try to level that out.”
Given that, it’s no surprise that one of Armstead’s primary initiatives is called “Storytime with Arik Armstead,” a project that allows Armstead to visit schools in person and via Zoom and read to classrooms of various ages.
Armstead has distributed books emphasizing the importance of diversity and inclusion to more than 2,000 students in the San Francisco Unified School District and another 2,000 plus members of the Boys & Girls Club. Since May 2020, Armstead has reached kids from first to fifth grade via 25 virtual classrooms in 21 school districts from his hometown of Sacramento all the way to Qatar. Each book has a message, covering topics such as equality, Black history and sustainability.
“I think back like ‘Another kid in that situation might lose his confidence and be like I’m not reading; I’m not even going to try it,'” Arik Armstead said. “And then they’re behind and they continue to fall behind. Because if you can’t read, how are you going to read your math problem? Or your history lesson? It’s just a spiral effect.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 and virtual learning became the norm, Hurst received a call from Armstead asking what was needed to bridge the digital divide for kids who didn’t have the devices or internet access to learn remotely.
Armstead donated $50,000, the beginning of the growing partnership between Armstead and Mercy Housing, which develops and operates low-income housing all over California and offers resources that range from basic needs like food and clothing to academic support. Armstead himself delivered Chromebooks and paid Wi-Fi hotspots to the Upper Land Park neighborhood of Sacramento.
“Often people who want to give come with a directive of like, ‘I want to do this, I’m going to give money to you to do this,'” Hurst said. “He came to me saying ‘What do you need?’ And he was able to be open and say, ‘This is the need, I’ll get to that need.’ Versus coming in with his agenda. He said ‘Oh, kids need laptops, Chromebooks, that makes sense, I got it.'”
A ‘fabric woven’ throughout his life
For Armstead and his three siblings, the idea of helping others was never far from their minds. Christa and Guss Armstead ran a tight but encouraging household, reminding their children that even though they weren’t the wealthiest family around, they were more fortunate than many kids.
Guss Armstead, a former college basketball player and well-known trainer for athletes in the Sacramento area, helped spur Arik’s sports career. Christa pushed education, often reminding her children that all things were possible through school. It’s something she learned from her own mother, who used to take her grandchildren to visit the USC campus and remind them that maybe one day they, too, could go to school at a place like that.
Armstead’s siblings set a similar example. His older brother Armond was an accomplished football player whom Arik badly wanted to emulate. And his sister Alexis has been instrumental in having deep, meaningful conversations with her brother about the importance of childhood education and how it ties directly into the justice system.
“We tried to teach them, ‘Don’t take this for granted,'” Christa Armstead said. “And it’s something I think you instill in kids when they’re young but when they become adults, when they go to college, their eyes kind of come open. … So, education and [helping others] have been kind of the fabric woven throughout their lives.”
Through it all, Armstead has never lost sight of where he came from. He remembers all the people who helped him get to where he is, including Hurst, who first met the Armstead family 14 years ago at Midtown Church in Sacramento. She now counts Christa Armstead as a mentor and Arik Armstead as a valued partner in helping to make change in the Sacramento area.
That Armstead was drafted by the 49ers — the team closest on a map to Sacramento — almost feels preordained, as though he was put here in part so he could pay back the place that raised him through his own philanthropy.
It’s why Armstead still makes his offseason home in Sacramento and why it’s not unusual for him to pop back into town for meetings with Mayor Darrell Steinberg to lobby for more support for his various projects or pitch new ideas.
“God always works in mysterious ways and has a plan and a purpose for everything,” Armstead said. “I think in a lot of ways I was meant to be here and meant to create change where I’m from.”
Much like chasing down a quarterback on his 25.5 career sacks, Armstead has no intention of slowing down his charitable pursuits. He and Hurst have a shared dream of opening a 10,000 square foot community center in Sacramento. They already have a building in mind complete with floor plans.
Armstead wants to turn it into a place for students to have tutoring and academic advisors as well as a STEM lab and a teaching kitchen for kids with an interest in culinary studies.
Armstead’s future plans also involve his growing family. He married his wife Mindy in June 2020 and the couple welcomed daughter Amiri in February. Becoming a dad to a daughter has added even more layers to Armstead’s ever-growing list of off-field pursuits.
To that end, Armstead has taken advantage of his proximity to Silicon Valley. He’s working with humanly.io, which creates software to bring equity to the job hiring process, and Syndio, which creates software for companies to evaluate whether they’re paying their employees equitably and not based on gender, race or age.
“I’m living for my child now and it gives me a new sense of purpose, a new sense of drive to create change for her,” Armstead said. “She’s going to be living in this world much longer than me hopefully, and how can I have impact and make her life better, not only through being her dad, but how can I create change to make the community better for her and create more opportunities for her?”
On Dec. 6, Armstead hosted a “Read for Justice” for third- through fifth-graders from the Boys & Girls Club of Silicon Valley. Sitting comfortably in front of about 50 kids, Armstead read the book “The Day You Begin,” by Jacqueline Woodson. It’s a story about children from different backgrounds finding the courage to connect by sharing their own stories.
As Armstead read the book aloud and led a discussion on diversity and inclusion, his mother looked on with the unmistakable feeling that her son, all grown up, was exactly where he was supposed to be, doing the exact thing he was supposed to be doing.
“I just think, ‘Wow. Arik you’re doing it. You’re doing what I dreamed or prayed or hoped you’d do,'” Christa Armstead said. “But I’m actually seeing my prayers answered.”