On the first Thursday in January, Aaron Maybin emerges from a bitter, blustery afternoon into the calm and warmth of Teavolve, a spacious, low-key cafe in Harbor East. He settles into a corner table in the restaurant’s rear, the effect of his lean, but imposing, 6-foot-4-inch frame softened by his casual manner. A three-hour conversation over tea and sandwiches offers a respite from the Arctic blast, but not from the storm of attention that Maybin has recently helped create.
Barely 24 hours earlier, he had tweeted a 45-second video in which he’s seated in front of a gaggle of grade-school kids. What’s the day been like today? he asks the room. The answer is an immediate, echoing chorus of young voices: Cold. Cold! Very very very very very very cold.
The setting was the library at Matthew A. Henson Elementary School in West Baltimore, one of many rooms at Henson that had no heat on a day when temperatures in the city topped out at 30 degrees. “It’s the same school Freddie Gray went to,” Maybin says, “which gives some context to what the dynamics are.” Thanks to Maybin’s nearly 27,000 Twitter followers, the video—along with a GoFundMe page he promoted that raised more than $80,000 to purchase space heaters for the school and winter gear and other much-needed items for its students—quickly went viral. Over the coming days, similar heating issues were reported at as many as 60 city schools. “Baltimore teachers have been talking about these issues for years,” Maybin says, “but it took somebody that used to play in the NFL to put a video out there of kids sharing how they feel.”
Maybin’s perspective resonates because he is both—a former first-round NFL draft pick and a teacher, among a handful of other identifiers. Those kids at Matthew A. Henson were his kids, students in the art classes he teaches three days a week. He is unique in having the platform of a celebrity and the insight of an insider; on that frigid January day, he felt compelled to use both. “I don’t think he came to work that day to make a statement,” says G. Travis Miller, the school’s principal. “He’s from this area, so he has a connection to this school. He’s a guy that is successful, and he’s part of this community. It makes him much more of an asset.”
Maybin might not quibble with the word asset, but the self-described “art-activist” is generally leery of any title placed on him by others. The new year already figured to be a busy one for the 29 year old, whose book, Art-Activism, a self-published collection of his visual art and writing, was released in November. “I’m not a politician, I’m not a preacher. I’m one of the people,” he says. “I don’t want to be a leader. I just want to be an example that we should all be doing something.”
It’s a fitting declaration for someone who has never been very good at sitting still.
As a child, Aaron Maybin was so active that “people didn’t like babysitting me.” His father says he can’t remember a photo in which his son is sitting still. “He was very busy,” Michael Maybin says—busy enough that by the time Aaron reached grade school, doctors wanted to prescribe him Ritalin. Michael decided against it.
“My argument, and resistance, was based on their argument that he [apparently] wasn’t able to concentrate on anything,” his father says. “That wasn’t the case with him.” Maybin grew up in West Baltimore, where his father worked as an inspector and spokesman for the Baltimore Fire Department, and his mother, Constance, worked in insurance. Before he excelled on the playing field, Aaron was drawing and sculpting, immersing himself in the act of creation. His parents would buy 500-sheet reams of oversize drawing paper from a neighborhood store that sold surplus school supplies. Aaron made short work of them. (He says his father’s longtime friend, acclaimed Baltimore artist Larry “Poncho” Brown, was one of the few babysitters he’d behave for because he had access to a treasure trove of art supplies.)
“We’d be sitting watching TV,” his father says, “and all of a sudden Aaron would just erupt—jump up, run someplace, and come back with pencil and paper. You couldn’t even keep aluminum foil in the house, because he would take it and make sculptures.”
Long a way to channel his energy, art for Maybin became therapy in 1995, when his mother, pregnant with his younger sister, died in childbirth. Aaron was six. Later that same year, Michael Maybin moved his young son and newborn daughter out of the city to Howard County, where they essentially integrated their neighborhood. Michael remembers Klan literature appearing in mailboxes on their street, and Aaron says there were certain houses where he quickly learned he wasn’t welcome. It was, Michael Maybin says, “a year of tremendous transition for us.”
Throughout, Aaron painted and sculpted and drew. When he was 11, he completed a 40-by-50-foot wall mural in Southwest Baltimore, a drawing of three hands of different hues placing bricks in a wall. He won a number of art competitions. But around that time, his size and athleticism began to set him apart: he excelled in baseball and basketball, ran track, and, when he was a high school sophomore, nearly made the state final in wrestling. But it was on the football field that he dominated, developing into one of the state’s best prep players as a defensive end at Mount Hebron High School. Coveted by many of the nation’s top college programs, he ended up at Penn State, the school his father had briefly attended years earlier.
He spent three years in State College, double majoring in communications and integrative arts and, by his junior year, developing into an All-American pass rusher. He left Penn State a year early, and in 2009 he was a first-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills. But his pro career never blossomed as expected, and after just four NFL seasons (plus a single game in the Canadian Football League), Maybin announced his retirement in May 2014. He was 26 years old. Suddenly, he had the means and the time to turn his lifelong passion, the thing that had sustained him through childhood tumult and professional disappointment, into a career. The football player with the interesting hobby could finally be what he’d really been all along—an artist, with ample motivation, and without constraints.
Aaron Maybin never really left Baltimore. From his art to Project Mayhem, the nonprofit foundation he started during his playing days, he has always remained rooted in, and inspired by, his hometown. His interest in education, and in the inequity inherent in the system, stems from his own transition from the city to the suburbs. “When I got to Howard County, it was like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve been treated bad my whole life,’” he says. “To go from having 10-year-old textbooks, no computers, classes of 30, 40 kids. . . . When you actually see how other people grow up, what they have access to and what you were forced to endure, it’s like a slap in the face.”
And so, while he poured himself into his painting—creating bold, colorful portraits of black revolutionary leaders, memorializing the likes of Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland, or commemorating the 2015 Uprising—he ensured his impact would be more than symbolic. Today, he teaches those art classes at Henson Elementary; he also works part time at The Children’s Home, a juvenile facility in Catonsville, where he runs art therapy sessions with girls and young women, many of whom are survivors of abuse and trafficking.
Those are only the scheduled gigs. With Maybin, so much of his work seems to be in response to the challenges that arise within and around his community. He was on the streets during the riots that followed Gray’s death, documenting the anger with interviews and photos. He was in that classroom in January, using his social media platform to illuminate the struggle of his students as they shivered through a school day. And over the next two weeks, he helped coordinate and pick up donations, organized a packing event at the Downtown Cultural Arts Center, and ended up at Wal-Mart with those GoFundMe organizers buying carts full of supplies. (Given the surplus from the GoFundMe, which was initially set for $20,000, Maybin and the other organizers expanded their shopping list to address needs throughout the city school system. He tweeted videos from the shopping trip, including one in which his fellow organizers, both women, giggle as he loads a cart full of feminine pads.)
It’s the sort of work a guy who was making NFL millions just a few years ago could probably pawn off on others. But that’s not Maybin’s way. “To have staff members who go above and beyond, any principal loves to have that, so he was already a top-shelf guy to me,” says Miller, the principal at Henson Elementary. “This just puts an exclamation point on it.”
It’s worth noting that none of this—the pesky details of organizing, of loading up shopping carts, all the relentless “above and beyond” that his principal so appreciates—seems to bother Maybin. Which is not to say he’s unaffected: You can see and hear the frustration as he talks about the root causes, be they political or cultural, of the poverty, violence, and lack of resources endemic to so much of the city, its schools in particular. But while he is well-versed in the causes, he is more interested in solutions, in whatever form they might take: from collecting and distributing space heaters and winter coats to addressing issues through his art.
And his book: Art Activism mixes dozens of Maybin’s paintings and drawings with his poetry and prose, both reflections on injustice and exhortations for his brothers and sisters to lift themselves up. It’s years in the making, and he’s proud of it.
“The hood loves this right now,” he says of his book. “The people that I see everyday, they’re not gonna read Ta-Nehisi Coates. They’re not gonna read Frantz Fanon or James Baldwin. But they’re gonna read that.”