For Chris Cvetkovic, long snapper for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the thing that means the world to him -- the thing that warms that very large heart within his very large 6-1, 243-pound body -- is that his four-year-old son and five-year-old daughter no longer tell people their father is a football player.
"They used to tell people their daddy was a football player. Now they tell people Daddy takes care of animals," Cvetkovic beams. "My daughter wants to be a veterinary princess when she grows up."
At 35, Cvetkovic is the oldest of the Blue Bombers players and has spent the last 10 years he has been on the team giving back to the community of Winnipeg. He is passionate about such issues as children's literacy and organizations such as CancerCare Manitoba.
But the Hamilton, Ont., native has always had a special soft spot for animals. He says he grew up with lots of pets he loved dearly. Right now, his home has an assortment of adopted cats and dogs. That is why, last February, he started his own organization, Cvet's Pets, a 100 per cent volunteer-run, not-for-profit outfit dedicated to helping Winnipeg's no-kill animal-rescue programs.
In January, an opportunity arose to take his message, his love for animals, from a local to a global level. He learned about the work of Cats and Dogs International (CANDi), an organization with the mission of saving the lives of stray cats and dogs in Mexico and the Caribbean through spay, neuter, adoption and education programs supported and funded by the tourism industry, travellers and pet lovers.
Cvetkovic decided to hand-pick an all-star team of six men representing four CFL teams -- Ian Logan, Buck Pierce and Brady Browne from the Bombers, Andre Durie from the Toronto Argonauts, Jabari Arthur from the Calgary Stampeders and Chris Getzlaf from the Saskatchewan Roughriders -- to spend a week in the economically challenged area of Bonfil, Mexico, helping CANDi spay and neuter animals from January 11-16. Flights and accommodations were paid for by Air Transat.
When they arrived, the men were taken aback and didn't know where to begin.
"Here we are, grown men who get paid to beat the hell out of each other, and it was jarring. We were speechless," says Cvetkovic.
He says that in Cancun, there are more than two million stray animals roaming the streets -- twice the number of people living there -- and the life expectancy of a dog is only two years.
"So many travellers are only exposed to their pristine resort while on vacation and are simply unaware of how dire the animal overpopulation situation in Mexico is, or they don't see the inhumane treatment of animals in the area," says Darci Galati, president of CANDi. "It's because of volunteers like Chris, as well as corporate supporters like Air Transat, that CANDi has been able to shine a spotlight on these issues and pave the way to making critical changes within the travel industry to become humane partners."
The first day, the men awoke at 7 a.m. and drove around in the back of a pickup truck picking up stray animals and bringing them to a special clinic set up by CANDi with veterinarians volunteering their time to spay and neuter. In the days following, the football players would help with anything from prepping animals for pre-surgery to providing post-surgery care. Cvetkovic said by the end of the day, physically and emotionally exhausted, the men would go back to the hotel and be in bed by 9 p.m.
By the end of the week, they helped spay and neuter more than 1,300 animals.
Back on his home turf, Cvetkovic is getting ready for an upcoming fundraiser for Cvet's Pets -- a Superbowl Sunday celebration at Danny's BBQ & Smokehouse and Buck's Sports Lounge starting at noon on Sunday, Feb. 3.
"As athletes, we have the unique opportunity to get the message out," says Buck Pierce, the Bombers' quarterback. "Chris has stepped it up to a whole other level, getting players from different teams to join together for a good cause. There is a bond that you have with animals that is unlike any other, and it's important to look at the issue both in Winnipeg but also in places where Winnipeggers vacation in the wintertime, like Mexico."
To learn more about the work of CANDi and how to get involved, visit http://www.candiinternational.org/. To learn more about Cvet's Pets, visit http://www.cvetspets.com/.
If you know a special volunteer who strives to make his or her community a better place to live, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.