Earl Mitchell has a Christmas-time memory of Santa Claus arriving where he lived and taking pictures with him and the other kids.
There was no chimney or cozy fireplace involved. The meet-and-greet took place in the community room of a Salvation Army family housing center in downtown Houston where he and his sister lived from time to time when they were growing up.
“Just being raised by a single mother, you kind of end up in predicaments like that,” Mitchell, the 49ers nose tackle, said this week as he prepares to play a game in his home city. “The Salvation Army is what we relied on.”
It may have been an ordeal for his mother at the time, but Mitchell has no bad memories. Instead he feels gratitude to the Salvation Army, which is why he raised money for the organization after Hurricane Harvey struck the city in August and why he wore Salvation Army-themed cleats during Sunday’s game in Chicago as part of the league’s “My Cause, My Cleats” fundraising campaign.
“I thought it was the least I could do – kind of like a ‘thank you,’ ” Mitchell said. “It brought it full circle for me knowing that I was there, living there at one point and that now I’m in a totally different place. They embraced us. They treat you like family. I wanted to thank that organization for helping me in a time of need.”
Philanthropy has been a major part of the Houston sports scene since the hurricane struck August 25. Earlier in the week, Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt and Astros second baseman Jose Altuve were given Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year Award. Watt, who is one of the most popular players in the NFL, helped raise $37 million toward flood relief following the hurricane
The 49ers, meanwhile, have many other connections to Houston. Head coach Kyle Shanahan was an assistant there alongside defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and special-teams coordinator Richard Hightower a decade ago and Hightower is a Houston native.
Assistant coaches Jeff Zgonina and DeMeco Ryans played for the Texans. In total, seven of Shanahan’s assistants either played for or coached on the Texans.
“Have a lot of good memories from there,” Shanahan said. “I’ve left and gone to a bunch of different places. Had to do different things. Houston’s a good city, a good football town. It’s a good organization.”
Et cetera – The 49ers nominated punter Bradley Pinion for the NFL’s prestigious Walter Payton Man of the Year award, won two years ago by then-49ers receiver Anquan Boldin. Pinion has been a mainstay on the team’s community-service events since he was drafted in 2015.