49ers' defensive line delivers a special Christmas for Bay Area kids

DeForest Buckner went from chasing opposing quarterbacks to chasing Ayashi, left, and Zuri around in a holiday shopping spree. Nick Wagoner/ESPN

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Sheldon Day is on the run again, searching and pursuing in an effort to keep up.

Just 16 days earlier, Day and his fellow Niners defensive linemen found themselves in a similar situation chasing around Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. On this day, though, Day's hands are every bit as full with Akuai, a 7-year old girl from the Fam 1st Foundation in Oakland, who is running Day in circles around the Shoe Palace off Business Circle in San Jose.

Armed with unending energy, impressive speed and a smile that can melt the iciest of glares, Akuai is on a mission to maximize the $250 Visa gift card the 49ers defensive line has provided as part of their "Holiday Blitz." She bounces from the shoe display to the fanny packs to the jackets, pausing only for an impromptu photo shoot, the one chance Day has to catch up.

"She was a handful but she has so much character," Day said, laughing. "She's so happy, so grateful for the opportunity to have us come in, have fun, let her run around, pick out some shoes, shirts, fanny packs, whatever she wants. It's definitely a blessing to be in this position."

For Day and his fellow defensive linemen, "this position" means an opportunity to provide a special Christmas for some deserving kids from an underserved community. The Fam 1st Foundation was co-founded by NFL players Josh Johnson and Marshawn Lynch in 2006 and legally established in 2011. It has since added Marcus Peters as a member of its board. The foundation is based in Oakland and focuses on helping "build new generations of innovative thinkers to create solutions for the future of Oakland and beyond."

The foundation has grown leaps and bounds since it opened. What started in a basement in downtown Oakland with about 20 kids and a couple of core programs now runs year-round and summer programs, which welcome 50 and 100 kids, respectively.

According to Center director Laron Caesar, the foundation and the Niners have worked together for a while, dating to Johnson's stints with the team in 2012 and 2014. This year was the first that the organizations teamed up for this event, with the 25 kids selected to participate based on their academic achievements.

"It’s awesome to these kids, they love it," Caesar said. "You see the smiles on their faces, this is what they live for. Just to see people like them who come from where they come from in some cases, that lets them know they can make it. It's possible and also shows them how to give back at the same time."

In a room just off Shoe Palace's main floor, other members of the Niners defensive line mingle with kids, playing ping pong and throwing footballs at a net as they snack on slices of pizza. Each lineman serves as a personal shopper of sorts, helping the kids pick out what they want and then using the gift card to purchase their selections.

Like Day, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner has his own challenges with Ayashi and Zuri, two young girls with differing tastes in shoes but similar tastes in everything else. Ayashi opts for rainbow-colored Nike Foamposites, size 3 youth, while Zuri goes with a black-and-gold pair of Champion shoes, size 5.5.

When Zuri sheepishly asks if they can get a headband, too, Buckner laughs and lets her know they can get much more. By the time the damage is done, they each have another pair of pink-and-blue Nikes, a fanny pack and a floral print jacket. Zuri adds in a flashy silver and gold jacket for good measure.

Buckner, whose wife is due to have a baby boy in the spring, and his teammates are only about 24 hours removed from a disappointing loss to the Atlanta Falcons. The time with the kids is effective in wiping that away.

"You can definitely get carried away with what you're doing in the moment and you forget about little things happening around the world," Buckner said. "It’s these little things that keep you grounded."

Finally, mercifully, Day has caught up to Akuai and it's time to pay for her selections. She also has opted for the most colorful shoes she can find, but it's the leopard-print fanny pack that garners most of her excitement.

Day looks on and smiles wide, thinking back to his own childhood in Indianapolis, where Christmas gifts weren't always a guarantee but close family time was.

"There are just so many kids who are less fortunate than we are," Day said. "It's a great opportunity to give back, especially to see the smiles on their faces. It's priceless."