A House Divided

“A house divided against itself cannot stand” – Abraham Lincoln

On February 13, 2003, after barely a wink of sleep, I woke up on the Jersey side of the Hudson River and looked out the hotel window to an unforgettable sight. Two Apache Helicopters were patrolling our border, hovering over the place where the Twin Towers once stood. It had been one year, five months and 12 days since the day that our country was attacked by terrorism, and I was in New York for the first time in my life, trying out for an opportunity to play football for the New York Giants.

It was all very surreal. It had been over a year since that day the Towers fell, and life was getting back to dare I say, “normal” in parts of the country, but being in New York, and seeing the Apache Helicopters hovering over the city, put me right back to that September morning in 2001. I stood by the window for nearly 30 minutes just watching them fly back and forth, but mostly they seemed to just hover. Protecting.

I could have stayed at that hotel window gazing out for the entire day. I was fixed in my thoughts regarding the 2,606 people who died in the World Trade Center and it seemed like an honor just to see the Apaches in action, in person. I remember thinking about the pilots and crew in those helicopters, wondering who they were and where the soldiers were from. I wondered if any were from Ohio like me. My curiosity got the best of me for a while as I stood and watched our country, and our military protect me while I was literally, chasing my dream.

Later that day, after a solid workout with Coach Pope and a few other coaches, I signed a contract to play for the Giants. The funny thing about that day, is that I expected that to happen. I went to New York to play football and wasn’t nervous, wasn’t intimidated by the city, or competition, or anything like that. I knew I could play football. But seeing those helicopters flying over New York City, that threw me off more than football ever had. That memory has remained in the back of my mind and close to my heart ever since. (I can see them vividly right now as I type).

Fast forward to August 7th of that same year, I played tight end in the first NFL game I ever attended. Standing on the 47-yard-line just before Kick Off, a few tears rolled down my cheek as I realized I made a dream come true and was playing in the NFL. Just about that same moment of realization, as the National Anthem was nearing the big finale, four F-16 Fighter Jets flew over the stadium in Foxborough and every hair on my body was standing. I’ve never felt goosebumps so intense and I had never felt more grateful for my family, my past coaches, my past teammates, my supporters and even my haters than I did at that moment. When the rockets red glared, fireworks in the stadium exploded, and I was a football player not just in the NFL, but in the land of the free, and in the home of the brave.

5 Days of Super Bowl 50

Super Bowl 50 from the Bay is officially in the books and this year was as exciting as any of the seven Super Bowl trips I’ve been so fortunate to be a part of. Different in many ways because I traveled with new clients and friends, and not the familiar faces from DMI, GENYOUth and the Fuel Up to Play 60 team. Although they had awesome news this year, announcing at the Super Bowl along with USDA availability there will be $35MM in grants available to schools. This group keeps getting it right.

After seven of these amazing work experiences over the years, I’ve learned from some of the best in the business about the details, logistics and planning that goes into Super Bowl week, and I’ve developed a real appreciation for it.

The people behind the scenes are why Super Bowl is such an outstanding event. Every company, every celebrity, every NFL club has these people. And I’m thankful for all they do. Whether it be at a networking dinner with special NFL guests, a thoughtful gift left as a room drop or even VIP access to the Playboy party. Someone is thinking about how they can improve your experience at the Super Bowl… and it will continue. Making Super Bowl, The Event of the Year.

Our work this year with the NFL Alumni Association had us begin our week with Coach and Jaws at their annual cigar party. Over 150 NFL Players were in attendance and a few special guests to support some great charities. I didn’t get a picture with Vince Vaughn, but it was a great event and a great way to kickoff the week.

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Coach and Jaws along with the Pro Football Legends at their annual Cigar Party.

In years past, I was on the look out for celebrities and players to get a picture with because let’s face it, it’s fun and intriguing in some ways, to hang out with the stars. While I did find a few players to take a picture with me this year, I also met another type of celebrity, Josh Peyton, whom I became friends with instantly thanks to an introduction from my partner in crime this week, Chris DeMain from Living Social. Josh Peyton is an Army Ranger and currently the CEO of the Veterans Golf Association. So basically no one tells him what to do. Which was evident when we walked right into a VIP suite at the EA Sports party to talk to Jerome Bettis. I guess when you’ve seen and done what Mr. Peyton has done for our country, some guy with a flashlight checking wristbands at the door doesn’t seem like much of a threat.

Josh rocking the red jacket like a boss at EA Sports Party.

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Catching a behind the scenes view of Fall Out Boy before Ludacris was on.

Friday morning was up and at em again with calls and meetings and later checked out the view from the top floor of my hotel. Had a nice Chicago style steak at Morton’s and was off to the Legend’s of the Game Party, hosted at the Pac-12 offices and caught up with former teammate and co-founder of Thuzio Executive Club, Tiki Barber. Brett Favre was also there with his new digital venture; Sqor Sports.

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Looking down from our hotel at Bud Light Village and a beautiful San Francisco evening.

From there, we were off to the Playboy party at AT&T park. The party itself had lots of energy and cool light shows. And of course nice scenery; as one would imagine at a party sponsored by Playboy. Sorry guys, none of those pictures from the Playboy Party; just a quick snap of Alesso below who was spinning. Thinking back, this may be the only moment of the night my phone was not in my pocket. I had a drink in one hand, and one hand free for making introductions – I was just too busy for taking pictures. It was a really tough day at the office.

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In the morning, met up with our friends at JBL and Harmon Audio for our JBL Live at the Vineyard event in Napa Valley. Nothing like jumping back on the horse with some nice reds and sparkling whites. Had these two not handed wine to me – I would have passed. But, as they say, when in Rome – or in this case Artesa Vineyard and Winery, drink up.

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Just a few of my friends from San Francisco.

The best part of this event was getting to congratulate and talk with Orlando Pace – 2016 HOF!  I don’t think there is a filter or photo shop tool out there that is capable of making me look like I wasn’t out all night or that I have not been drinking Pinot Noir. So I’m not even going to try. But I wanted to capture my conversation with the Big Guy. We talked about OHSAA basketball and how he used to dunk on people when he played at Sandusky High School.  He may be the GOAT LT… Maybe Anthony Munoz would disagree but I’m telling you, Big O is a beast. Pretty sure he could also still toss every one of those wine barrels over the Shoe.

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Congratulations on being selected to the Hall… O.H.I. BIG O.

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Our NFL Alumni lineup at the JBL Live event from Artesa Vineyard in Napa Valley.

Other players who joined us for our event included Charles Haley, Andre Reed, Dana Stubblefield, T.O., Brady Quinn, who is standing behind Jimmy Johnson, and standing beside Orlando is Joe Pisarcik – the President and CEO of the NFL Alumni Association. Also in the picture are our friends from Harmon who helped to make all this possible.

Inside, the party was a blast, the food and music was great, and the wine was perfect. Outside though… Breathtaking! The views were amazing and pictures from my phone cannot even come close to doing them justice. The aromas and air and everything about the area, was beautiful. Definitely unlike anywhere I have even been to. I’d love to go back! I learned that the yellows in the photo between the rows is mustard – and it only blooms during the months of February and March. So I had that going for me, which was nice.

No filter necessary.

By the time the JBL event was over and we got back to the hotel, it was nearly time to get ready to go out again. We rallied and made it out for the Rolling Stone Party at the San Francisco Design Center. A very cool venue. Four floors in an open square design. We rubbed elbows with Steph Curry and a few others. Nothing like dropping in 36 across the bay, grabbing a shower and then walking the red carpet at a Super Bowl party sponsored by Rolling Stone. Steph is having an incredible run lately!

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Looking down onto the crowd at the Rolling Stone party.

My favorite event from a football standpoint before the big game is the NFL Alumni Pregame Brunch. From Flemming’s Steak House in Palo Alto, Pro Football Legends like Justin Tuck and Rob Woodsen (not pictured) and this crew (Jaws, Jim Thorpe, Kellen Winslow, T.O. and Andre Reed) talk about what it’s like playing in the Super Bowl, the match up, predictions, and everything else that comes along with it. If you are a pure football fan, this is where it’s at. The parties are fun – they really are. But this is football. This is what it is really all about!

Here’s a nice picture of T.O. talking on the mic and not on his phone – about the only time he was on stage and wasn’t on his phone.  I’m not sure who he was talking to but among this company – he looked like a rookie. I have a high expectation for paying players for appearances. After working with Fuel Up to Play 60 ambassadors for so many years, I’ve learned how a true professional should act in this type of setting. But hey, here’s T.O. One of the very best ever to play the game, and one of the very few people who are recognized by only his initials.

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Pam Oliver and Jaws facilitating the NFL Alumni Pregame Brunch at Fleming’s.

Next year the Super Bowl makes its way to Houston. Here’s to looking forward to #8 for me, and LI for the world!

Until then – when do Pitchers and Catchers report Cub fans? That’s a wrap on this year’s football season… Go Cubs Go!

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My Terrifying Encounter with Dementia

Recently I engaged in one of the most sobering experience of my life.

The NFL Alumni Association (client) developed a partnership with Validus Senior Living earlier this year to provide long-term care for former players. The NFL Alumni chose Validus as their partner for several reasons, but one of the driving forces was their expertise in dealing with dementia and their ability to provide individual care for our guys. As a result of this partnership, I’ve learned a great deal about dementia and senior living care over the past few months.

There may not be a more important issue for retired NFL players and their families right now, than dealing with dementia and Alzheimer’s. If you were tuned into 60 Minutes this week, you saw this topic boiling up as a national discussion. Certainly it isn’t the only issue retired players face, however there is none like it… I know that after my experience today.

In the back of my mind, I secretly wonder what the real impact will be on my life after playing football for so long. What will be the long-term effect of the six concussions I had? Or was it seven? Maybe it was ten… depends if I count all the times I saw stars or had my bell rung – then it was more like – I have no idea how many times.

Would I trade any of it? No. But after today, it sure scares the shit out of me.

They told me that I should experience the virtual dementia simulation to get a better understanding of what it’s like to have dementia. That it would give me a new perspective on what it’s really like to have the disease, and more importantly, what it’s like for spouses and family members who deal with it.

I do not want my family to see me this way. Ever. I was extremely vulnerable, and the reality that someday I will not be a strong and confident man shook me up. And the worse part, I won’t even know it when or if it happens.

If this is my future, and this is how it ends… I don’t know if it is even worth living. Might as well donate my organs and give someone else a chance to live.

The simulation involved wearing a few apparatuses and I was given a short list of tasks to complete. Nothing overly techy about the devices I wore, or the instructions I was given. I wore some goggles and headphones to disrupt my senses and was put in a dark room to complete my tasks. But as is the case with dementia, my senses were altered.

As soon as we began the simulation, noise came though the headphones and the instructor began giving me instructions and then before I knew what was happening, I was lost in a strange place; confused and unsure of myself. I remembering thinking, this is just a simulation, I got this… But I didn’t have it.

It’s just a simulation, it’s not real, I kept trying to convince myself. But it took a hold of me. It was real.

If dementia is the outcome of using my helmet as a ramrod basically every time someone tried to tackle me, I’m glad I got to the NFL even if it were only for a short time. The feeling I had the first time I played in an NFL game, is one that I still recall and can enjoy. I’d like to think that I have worked hard to experience some success in other areas of my life, have done some good things and have traveled to some interesting places. Let me tell you, none of that mattered today… and frankly, going forward, not sure how much any of it really mattered in the first place.

You get perspective when you experience what it is like to have dementia as I did today. You get an education; and maybe most importantly, you get real grateful that you do not have dementia today. You also get a bit emotional and thankful there are people like the folks at Validus Senior Living and Fusion Health Care who chose this line of work. We need them. I need them. I hope I don’t, but there’s a one in three chance that I will.

We all probably know someone with dementia, may have interacted with someone, or even cared for someone with dementia. I have a new perspective today about it. A new hope for research, a sense of responsibility to talk about it, and a sense of urgency to act now that my work involves it. What I mostly feel though after experiencing this disease today….

Wait, where am I?  I’m scared.  I don’t remember….

Updates from UpField

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It’s been a few months since we opened our doors and now that the dust has settled a bit, I wanted to again say thank you for your friendship, well wishes, and for allowing us to share our very first newsletter with you.

As we enjoy the final weeks of summer here in the Midwest, Friday night lights are again shining on high school football, the pageantry of college game day has begun, and the NFL has brought us football on Sunday (and Monday and Thursday, on demand on Tuesday and anytime we want it throughout the week on their network.) By the way, did you know that according to a recent Global Web Index poll, 65% of Americans say they are fans of the NFL? At UpField, we’re excited to have our favorite sport back, and even more excited to be working with our football clients; Fuel Up to Play 60, the NFL Alumni Association, and Glazier Clinics.

Our team here at UpField has been extremely busy moving the ball down the field for our clients. We’re developing new business opportunities and most recently signed a merchandise licensing agreement for a client. We have taken positive steps in the right direction as a new company, and as we look at where we have been and where we are going, we recognize that we are in the business of strategically connecting organizations and causes while simply trying to help people.

Best of luck to your team this season and thank you again for being a part of our professional network.

Mark

Open Letter to America’s Dairy Farmers

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Dear Farmers,

Eight years ago at a church social in my hometown, I was a few months into my new job at the American Dairy Association when  a dairy farmer by the name of Don Hempfling told me he was proud of the work we were doing at the checkoff, bought me a “social burger” and he told me thank you. That conversation and gesture ultimately became a defining moment in my career and from that evening forward, I was committed to working with farmers.

Over the years I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with you, learn from you and call you my friends. The core values of this organization and the leadership you provide are a true testament of what doing the right thing in life leads to. As I reflect on nearly a decade of employment in the dairy industry, I am thankful for the opportunity to be a small part of the many great programs we’ve built over the years. What I’ll remember the most about the programs though, is that the people involved were great people who valued doing the right thing.

While I am technically resigning from DMI and will be starting a new venture, the success of the dairy industry and working on behalf of farmers is still core to defining success. I look forward to building the UpField Group into an organization that farmers will be proud of, will create revenue for your industry and will share the values of this organization.

Finally, thank you for all you have done and continue to do as leaders of the dairy industry. As a staff member at DMI, it is a privilege to be invited to the Board meetings and to spend time with you all. Over the years I’ve had the good fortune of spending time with many of you and your families at these meetings, and as a result, I believe I am a better person both professionally and personally. You are the leaders of our industry, but more importantly of your families and your farms. That dynamic makes you a special group of people and I am thankful for the opportunity to have worked with you and for you. As I resign from DMI, please know it is not a resignation from agriculture or farming, but rather a decision to continue onward in agriculture, working in a new way on behalf of a great group of people.

Sincerely,

Mark

My NFL Draft Story: Waiting for the Phone to Ring

A long time ago… With the first pick in the 2002 NFL Draft, The Houston Texans selected, David Carr, a quarterback out of Fresno State.

I watched every pick that year hoping to hear my name called. I watched most of the coverage pacing my living room apartment in Findlay, OH – not overly confident I would get drafted, but thought I had a chance. I had an excellent agent (whom I still consider a friend) and even though I went to a small college, I had the size and athleticism to play at the next level. I was even projected as high as the fourth round on some draft boards. (Those scouts may have lost their jobs about the same time I did though)

I didn’t hear my name on television that day but shortly after Mr. Irrelevant heard his name called, the first cell phone I ever owned rang and there was a (704) number trying to reach me. On the other end was Marty Hurney, the General Manager from the Carolina Panthers. “Mark how would you like to join our team and be a Carolina Panther? We’d like to offer you a free agency contract as long as no other team has signed you.”

As much as I looked forward to this day, I never pictured how it would go or thought about what I would say. So I simply said to Marty, “Ok. I’m in. When do we start?”

For a few minutes after hanging up, I tried to process what had just happened. I was sort of numb to the whole experience and didn’t know what to say to the few close friends who were with me. I’m certain they expected me to be more emotional, but everything was just so surreal.

At one point, I remember thinking it had only been 30 seconds since Ahmad Miller’s name was called with the 261st pick, and the draft was over when my phone rang. It had rang a few times throughout the day. I talked to several teams that day. All of them asking me who else I was talking to. It was very exciting when the phone rang… and very disappointing when the team I just got off the phone with picked another player.

Of course the disappointment of not getting drafted quickly subsided when the Panthers picked up the phone 30 seconds after the 2002 NFL Draft ended and offered me a contract. It felt good to be desired and it gave me hope that playing professional football was again a possibility. The sinking feeling in my stomach lasted only 30 seconds that day, and I would encounter that feeling in my career a few more times, however with disappointment, also came jubilation.

Signing an NFL contract and playing in the NFL are special moments of realization for a few of us very lucky athletes. It’s not easily described because of the intangible, personal commitment it takes to make that dream a reality. To say it was a dream come true, does not give it justice.

Starting tonight and throughout the Draft weekend, young men will have their lives changed as they hear their name called by the Commissioner. Their families will be proud, their friends will celebrate and their pockets a little fuller. But more than anything, they will have a moment. And in that moment, they will feel something more powerful than words, wallets or friendships. It will be a quiet moment, one I recall as a blessing.

Rock Stars of Agriculture Interview

Earlierrock_stars_of_agriculture this week I was humbled to be a guest on the podcast, Rock Stars of Agriculture. Sports and agriculture have been such an important part of my life and it was a lot of fun to talk with Wayne about both. During the 30 minute interview we discuss a little football and a lot of agriculture. I always knew I had a face for radio; so hopefully Wayne will have me back… The podcast can be heard here: Rock Stars of Agriculture with Mark Inkrott.