When it comes to protecting our environment, it’s easy for some people to turn their backs and simply caste this responsibility aside as someone else’s issue. To them, it’s just an afterthought. To Atlanta Falcons fullback Ovie Mughelli, this cavalier mentality is at odds with his most fundamental beliefs regarding the environment.
“If you’ve played any type of sport, especially football, you know you can never wait for the other man to make a play,” Mughelli told me. “You can’t sit on the sidelines and be like ‘I’m going down on the kickoff or punt team, and someone else will make the tackle. Or, it’s the 4th quarter of the game, and I don’t have to worry about making a play; somebody else will do it.’”
Mughelli, a staunch environmental activist, points out that those who espouse this mentality will never win a game in their life. Unfortunately, he laments, this is the mentality that we’ve adopted as human beings to save our planet.
“The tree huggers or the quote-unquote hippie[s], they’ll take care of it. Or, some ‘brainiac’ will solve it. That’s not going to happen. It’s all about doing our part. It’s not rocket science at all. It’s all simple stuff that can be done, just by taking an interest in your fellow human beings.”
Mughelli isn’t the type of a person who is going to sit around idly and wait for others to step up. He’s not only doing his part, but he has been imparting on others the importance of them doing their part too.
Through the Ovie Mughelli Foundation (OMF), Mughelli has put a masterful game plan in place to make his mark on the environment and in the community.
His plan is actually quite simple. Educate underprivileged children on the environment. By starting with children—an approach embodied by his foundation’s motto: Our future is green—Mughelli believes that he will be able to influence households first, then neighborhoods, and ultimately, the world.
“It’s all about using your celebrity for good and knowing that you can just help so many people just by touching one. It goes on and on and on.”
OMF’s initiatives intertwine sports and eco-education to help future generations make the practical lifestyle changes needed to become more environmentally-conscious. Mughelli hosts football training camps for underprivileged children in his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina and Atlanta each summer, where football drills and recycling lessons come as a package deal. He also launched an after-school youth environmental education club last fall at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta that offers a sports and outdoor-influenced curriculum of activities.
In December, OMF donated an earth-friendly playground and athletic field to the students of the Ron Clark Academy (RCA) in Atlanta. Mughelli considers the groundbreaking at RCA to be one of the biggest accomplishments in his philanthropic career.
“It meant so much to me because those kids deserve a field where they can exercise, where they can play, where they can just do all their activities without having to drive twenty minutes away to a grass field that sometimes they can’t use.”
As Mughelli relishes in this major milestone and gushes with enthusiasm about the kids at RCA, he points out that an environmentally-friendly field made out of all recycled materials not only allows kids to exercise, but it reinforces his message that “...by recycling and reusing, you can not only do right by yourselves, but you can do right by the planet.”
Every time these kids play on the eco-turf, Mughelli adds, “They are going to say, ‘I wouldn’t have this if people didn’t recycle these different plastics and all the materials to give me what I’m playing on right now.’”
Mughelli’s passion for educating children on the environment was initially inspired by Laura Turner Seydel, the activist daughter of media mogul and Captain Planet cartoon creator Ted Turner. Seydel, a national environmental advocate and eco-living expert, serves as the Chairperson of the Captain Planet Foundation, which supports hands-on environmental projects for youth in grades K-12.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” said Mughelli, who ran into Seydel at a Captain Planet Foundation benefit event he attended. The two were engaged in small talk when Seydel asked Mughelli what he does to help kids to get active about the environment. Mughelli remembered laughing at the question at first and saying, “Why should I be doing anything to help kids get active with the environment? It’s not a big issue.”
He says his response rubbed Seydel the wrong way and caused her to start telling him everything that was going on in the environment, all the ways kids can affect it negatively, and the lack of attention we are giving the environment as adults. She stressed to him that we (adults) are supposed to be the ones in charge and the ones looking out for the people who have no voice—our children—and in her opinion, we’ve been doing a terrible job.
With this guilt trip, she opened his eyes to the potential impact he could have on the youth. She impressed upon him how he can say the same thing that she says, but when it comes from him, the kids will actually listen to him because he’s an NFL star, and they want to hear what he has to say.
After her impassionate appeal, she then asked Mughelli, ‘Now do you understand why?’
He got it. “After all the facts and all the statistics she threw at me, I was like, ‘how can I help?’”
At this point, Mughelli decided to switch directions with his foundation—which was originally focused on health awareness and physical activity when he founded it in 2007—to focus on empowering kids to take ownership of their lives and their role in society by protecting the environment.
On top of Seydel’s prodding, having a daughter of his own led him to feel more personally invested in pursuing this cause, the moment he says it all started to come real for him. “When I had my daughter a few years ago, it really changed everything because it was a tangible reason why to do the little things as far as recycling, reusing, turning off lights and turning off water, trying to use a compost machine, and trying to just limit my energy use.”
Mughelli doesn’t want his two-year-old daughter to grow up in a world where she would have to worry about air pollution and smog alerts—things he didn’t have to deal with when he was young. “I shouldn’t put her in a worse situation that I’m in because I’m lazy, or just because I don’t want to worry about it.”
Armed with Seydel’s indoctrination and his concern for what the world might be like when his daughter is older, Mughelli dove headfirst into the “green space.”
“It’s not a democratic, republican, or policy issue,” Mughelli said about protecting the environment. “It’s all about people. It’s all about taking care of your fellow man and it’s all about saving the children.”
While some people might disagree with this characterization, defining and framing it as a human relations issue has paved the way for him to leverage his football star status to influence underprivileged youth and change their outlook on the environment.
“I use football, I use sports, I use my quote-unquote celebrity to reach a segment of the population as far as underprivileged, underserviced youth, who don’t know about the problems with the environment and direct their attention to things elsewhere.”
Mughelli credits having great role models and mentors for helping him realize how much power he truly has an NFL player. At the start of his career with the Baltimore Ravens (where he played from 2003 through the 2006 season), he says he had the privilege of learning from All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis, who he refers to as a “leveraging, marketing machine,” and 2011 NFL Hall of Fame Inductee Deion Sanders. When both he and Deion were injured at the same time and rehabbing together, Mughelli says he realized that Deion was a genius when comes to marketing himself. “The man has been amazing at using his personality, using his celebrity, not only in the business arena, but as far as philanthropic wise. He has benefited and companies come support him to allow him to help children.”
And that’s exactly what Mughelli has been able to do.
As an eight-year NFL veteran coming off the heels of his first Pro Bowl appearance in 2010, he has been able to walk into the doors of green companies that he says have been trying to push great messages, but haven’t had the luxury of having an NFL guy be the face of their company or message. By forging strong ties with green companies, it has made it easier for Mughelli to break down barriers and get his message to resonate with inner-city children.
“I let kids know that it’s okay to say, ‘I’m going green.’ It’s not lame, it’s not dirty, it’s not ‘uncool.’ It’s actually something to be proud of to say, ‘I care about my fellow human beings. I care about family, my community, my neighborhood, my church, and my school. I care about that. And I’m going to do whatever I can to help maintain the quality of life of everyone around me.’”
Mughelli admits that despite his star power, he still faces some resistance in persuading underprivileged kids—who have so many other pressing concerns—to care about the environment. Said Mughelli: “It’s hard to get African American kids to really buy into ‘let me see how I can recycle or reuse, let me see how I can limit my energy production, let me see how I can do things to help the planet and help myself.’”
The easiest way to get through to them he says is to tell them how the environment can negatively affect them if they don’t take the necessary action. He talks about the air quality, asthma, and other health issues that they might have to endure. “They’re like 'oh okay' and then a light bulb flashes,” Mughelli says, after he rattles off the potential adverse health effects.
Then he moves on to the positive appeals. He lets them know that it’s not only about helping the planet; it’s also about helping their families. “If you turn off all those lights and conserve water, mama is going to have lower bills. And if she has lower bills, she’s going to be happier. If she’s happier, you’re happier.”
He teaches them that not only can they save their households money by doing different things around the house or with their lifestyle to help the planet, but they can make money too. “They can make green by going green,” he tells them. “And when they hear they can actually make money and do what’s right by the planet, then their ears perk up and they want to hear what you have to say.”
To reinforce the monetary benefits of going green, Mughelli started a program called the Green Speaker Series that features various environmental activists and green business owners. Mughelli and his foundation take the kids on field trips—whether it’s to a recycling plant, landfill, or compost company—so they can see how they can make money in the future with green businesses and alternative energy. He stresses the importance of teaching kids that this is the way of the future and wants to make sure they don’t get left behind and are prepared for this new era of jobs that he predicts is on the horizon.
Mughelli not only considers himself a role model for kids, but he also views himself as one for other pro athletes in terms of philanthropy. He believes the first part of being a role model for philanthropy is to actually care about the cause, and not have just have a foundation for a tax break or as a way to look good in the media.
“I feel like guys that have foundations and don’t really do much with it are not passionate about it. You got to be passionate about it. If you’re not, it’s going to fall off once you finish football.”
Mughelli implores his fellow athletes to enlist the help of people around them, including their fans, donors, and sponsors. He emphasizes the importance of surrounding yourself with a great team.
“I feel like people see that I’m serious and passionate about what I do and they want to support me because I want this to be a legacy foundation that someday my daughter can pick up and she can help kids across the country, and even worldwide at some point.”
Mughelli says his Falcons teammates support his work and attend many of his events. When they come, he gives them some organic cleaners, trash bags, and other green household products. Mughelli’s teammate Brian Finneran told him that his wife loves using the green cleaning products Ovie gave him and that they plan on making a permanent switch.
Mughelli thinks that slowly some of his teammates are coming around and seeing the “whole green thing” as more than a fad—that it can actually be beneficial to them and their families.
He reminds me that in the end, it only helps to push the green message because your personal power is very powerful. “If people are demanding green products, products that are bio-degradable, and products that won’t hurt the earth, then companies will keep on making them, and they will get cheaper too. We have to support all products that are [made from] post-consumer material and products that are recycled from other materials.”
Mughelli is the #2 rated eco-athlete in the world according to PlanetGreen.com. He has met fellow Green activist and Former Vice President Al Gore. He has risen to the top of the "Green" circles and impacted the lives of hundreds of underprivileged children.
Even with all the accolades and success, Mughelli remains humble and readily admits he still has a long way to go before he can hold himself out as an expert.
“I sound knowledgeable on everything, but I’m far from being knowledgeable on everything," he told Access Athletes. “I always have this disclaimer: I do not know everything. I play football. I am trying to do my best to encourage kids to do the right thing by the environment with the knowledge that I have.” He uses this caveat to keep himself from getting backed into a corner by someone who’s trying to expose him for not knowing everything or for giving bad advice.
He continues to educate himself about the environment every single day, whether it’s reading up on the latest trends or green products, or touring the oil-soaked Gulf Coast last summer.
Mughelli values the big picture and emphasizes that it’s not about doing everything right. He urges people to take baby steps. “You have to start from somewhere in order to get to a point where you are as great as possible. No one is perfect, but as long as you’re making strides that improve every day and taking steps to helping our planet more than you’re hurting it, I feel like that’s the way to go.”
The more Mughelli immerses himself in his work, the more he discovers how much work still needs to be done and just how much his contribution to the cause really means.
“I knew that I was doing something good, but I didn’t know how much I was doing until I really got my hands dirty in the green space and started paying more attention to details and seeing what kids are going through and the conditions that they are living in, and the conditions we’re leaving this earth.”
While Mughelli, like his fellow NFLPA brethren who have been locked out by the NFL owners, will undoubtedly continue to wonder when he will be permitted to get back to playing the game he loves, at least he has a second career to fall back on while he waits for the legal challenges to run their course.
“I love to give and love the sport, but what really matters at the end of the day is people. If you can help people with a word, with an action, with a smile, then you should.”
Matthew Allinson is the Founder of AccessAthletes.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @accessathletes.