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55 Yard Line - CFL

It must be "Character Week" in the CFL, with Troy Westwood, Nik Lewis, Andy Fantuz and Henry Burris all making news within the last seven days. One man who would make any list of CFL characters is Toronto Argonauts' defensive tackle Adriano Belli (pictured above chasing down then-B.C. quarterback Buck Pierce last season), and he's in the news today. This time, though, it's not for his on-field actions, his Kissing Bandit stunts (which he took to Touchdown Atlantic this year) or even his singing, but rather a different way he chose to display his true character.

Terry Koshan of The Toronto Sun has a great story on Belli today. Belli has been battling a foot injury, so he hasn't been able to play much lately, and the team decided to place him on the nine-game injured list yesterday. He's hoping to come back for the playoffs, but his regular season is almost certainly over. However, his off-field impact isn't.

Koshan reports that while he's injured, Belli has decided to donate his paycheques to his Big Kiss Fund, which supports kids at The Hospital for Sick Children (commonly known as SickKids). Here's the key part:

"They've paid me enough over the years and until I can play again, this is the best thing to do," Belli, who makes just shy of $200,000 a season, told the Toronto Sun. "A few games won't hurt."

That's pretty amazing. There are lots of CFL players, including Belli, who put tons of time and money towards charitable efforts, but a player donating his entire pay while he's injured is pretty unique. Of course, Belli's a pretty unique guy on his own, as he's even appeared as a wedding singer for teammate Brian Ramsay:

Despite, or perhaps even because of, the quirkiness he's shown over the years, Belli has always been one of the CFL players most prominently involved in charitable efforts (and that's saying something in a league where countless players donate tons of time and money to charity). Argonauts' communications director Beth Waldman told me he's been the team's nominee (as selected by the players) for the Tom Pate Memorial Award several times, a league-wide award given out to a player who's made a significant contribution to the community. Waldman said Belli's always had a deep connection to children at the hospital, and that's motivated his charitable efforts.

"From the time he arrived in Toronto (in 2007), he's been very dedicated to the community, especially the SickKids Foundation," Waldman said. "The connection with the kids in the hospital is close to his heart."

This is far from the only thing Belli's done for the hospital over the years. He's raised funds for them through everything from toy drives to Canadian Idol appearances to Valentine's Day dinners. He's also frequently traveled to the hospital with teammates to visit sick children. Here's a video of one of their visits in December 2009:

The hospital's very appreciative of the support Belli and the team have provided them as well. Ted Garrard, president and CEO of the SickKids Foundation, said via e-mail that Belli's helped them significantly over the years, and all the donations they receive are critically important to their continuing work.

"Adriano’s support through the Big Kiss Fund is wonderful,” Garrard said. "Our donors enable us to provide the best care possible allowing us to continue to be a world leader in children’s health in Toronto, across Canada and around the world. We wish him a speedy recovery and are cheering the Argos on for a great season!"

I spoke to Belli today about his charitable efforts, and he said his passion to help sick children is driven by personal experience at the hospital when he was growing up in Toronto.

"When I was a kid, I stayed at the hospital with something asthma-related," he said. "It's something that's dear to my heart."

He has raised money and volunteered at local hospitals throughout his career, which has taken him from Atlanta to New York to Las Vegas to Montreal, with other stops in B.C., Cleveland and Hamilton. When he joined the Argonauts in 2007, though, he decided to get involved with his hometown hospital and he soon established the Big Kiss Fund as a place for companies and individuals to donate to the hospital. Some of his sponsors donate money for each sack or tackle he records, but one-time donations are also welcome from anyone. He even sang the national anthem at an Argonauts' game last year (pictured below) to raise awareness about the fund.

Belli said he started the fund because he wanted to do more to raise funds and awareness for the hospital.

"I wanted to spearhead something," he said.

He doesn't just raise money for kids or spend time with them at the hospital, though. For Belli, it's important to give sick children the chance to get out of the hospital and spend time with professional athletes.

"The Argonauts have generously donated a suite to my fund," he said. "I bring anywhere from 10 to 15 kids to each game."

The kids get to enjoy the game in style, complete with food and drinks, and Belli introduces them to plenty of his teammates. He said his prominence as an athlete has compelled him to give back to the community, and he's trying to encourage other athletes to follow suit.

"I've been lucky because I've been in the public eye," he said. "I do so many bad things on the field, so I want to do some good off the field."

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