ESPN crews joined Chris Long (Col ’08) and another St. Louis player on the street. Still courtesy of ESPN

On a rainy, cold day in March, two men panhandled by the side of a downtown St. Louis highway. One of them collected $6 over a few hours—enough to buy a meal at a nearby White Castle. What the drivers handing over their change didn’t realize was that the 6-foot-3-inch panhandler was not homeless, but one of the city’s most recognizable athletes. Disguised in makeup and tattered clothing, Rams defensive end Chris Long (Col ’08)—along with teammate William Hayes—spent about 24 undercover hours homeless.

The two thought of the idea more than a year ago. The Rams’ defensive line had already been involved in causes related to homelessness since 2012, including donating $1,000 to the St. Patrick Center, a local resource center for the homeless, for every sack recorded in the Sack Homelessness initiative (which has raised $150,000 to date). But Long and Hayes wanted to experience homelessness while raising awareness by recording a documentary-style film of their experience trying to make it on the streets.

Several days before they began, ESPN heard what Long and Hayes had planned and asked if their camera crews could join the duo. The subsequent piece aired on SportsCenter.

“I always wondered, How did this person end up homeless? This is someone’s son, brother, father. Where is that safety net we’re so lucky to have?” Long says.

“We learned that there are so many reasons people get displaced and might stay that way.”

With only $4 and no cellphones, he and Hayes (along with an undercover security guard) panhandled, tried to sleep during the day and found an empty box truck to sleep in for one night. Hayes hardly slept, calling it the “worst night of my life.” They befriended several homeless people, including two for whom Long and Hayes paid expenses to live in an extended-stay hotel for several months afterward.

“In any U.S. city, people look away, and this is something that forced me to open my mind,” Long says. He and Hayes have kept up with several of the people they met while continuing to raise money and awareness, including the #CantLookAway Collection on June 3, when the duo collected donations from fans outside of Busch Stadium after a Cardinals game. They raised more than $1,500 in less than two hours.

“You can’t end homelessness, but you can help a lot of people who deserve a roof over their heads,” Long says.

“If our piece makes people want to spread kindness or help someone, we’ve done something good.”