From the time I graduated college I’ve had the privilege of working with professional athletes in several different capacities. As an athlete, guys who will one day be in the Hall of Fame mentored me and taught me about the game. As an employee and someone now on the other side of the business, professional players still teach me about the game. It’s not about the playbook anymore though – it’s about the game of life and what it means to be a pro.
I have been incredibly blessed to have opportunities both as an athlete and in business. I’ve been on five Super Bowl trips with my company since coming to work for dairy farmers, and have had the chance to speak to thousands of kids over the years about our Fuel Up to Play 60 program. I’m realizing the days of being recognized as an athlete are passing me by, however every once in a while, a kid waiting for one of our Fuel Up to Play 60 ambassadors to sign his football will ask me if I played, and let me sign his football. It’s not going to fetch much on Ebay, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it still feels good.
We have the greatest ambassadors and spokespersons in the entire NFL working with Fuel Up to Play 60 to spread the word about youth health and wellness. On Friday night before the Super Bowl, we invited some of them to join us for dinner and we had the privilege of getting to know them outside of work.
Larry Fitzgerald and I were seated at the same table that evening and after dinner he was gracious enough to pose for a picture with me. During dinner, my boss who was also at our table, indulged me by telling Larry that I too played a little ball and from that point on through dinner, Larry invited me to answer several of the football related questions that came up at the table. It was incredibly humbling and my respect for Fitzgerald, went from a 99 to a 100. They really do not come any better in the NFL than this gentleman. He even asked me before leaving how I was adjusting to, as he referred to it, “real America.” Well, I told him, “It’s not the NFL, but it’s not all bad either. The thing I learned pretty quickly,” I told him, “you will miss your teammates and the locker room, so finding the right team and culture to be in business with is important.” He extended his hand, looked me in the eye and said, “that’s good stuff.”
My favorite story he told was about being a ball boy and a friend of the Minnesota Vikings as a teenager, growing up in the twin cities. His father was a sports journalist there and over the years became good friends with the Vikings coach, Denny Green. Through that friendship, Larry was invited to be around the team and became friends with many of the players. Two of those players, were Ohio State Buckeyes. Cris Carter became and still is a mentor to Larry, and the late Korey Stringer was the best tipper on the team. Larry would wash the cars of the players during training camp and they would take care of him handsomely. Once Randy Moss even let Fitzgerald drive his brand new Bentley to his Senior Prom! Can you imagine!?
At the Taste of the NFL, I spent a few minutes talking with Tim Tebow. I seriously do not know how anyone cannot like this guy! No matter what you are passionate about in this world, if you commit to it, chances are you will find success. Commitment is a rarity in many areas of society today and to hear people criticize this guy because of his commitment to his values and beliefs… Well, Godspeed to you. I happen to love what Tim stands for and have always been a fan of his. And I told him that this weekend.
Me: “Thank you for doing what you do, man. It’s refreshing to talk with someone who gets it like you do.”
Tim: “It’s what I do, Mark. It’s just who I am. Thank you for saying that.”
Me: “You’re a pro in my book, man. Good luck with everything. God Bless.”
Tim: “Thank you, Mark. God Bless.”
Me: (out-loud but to myself as I walked away) “That was awesome. Hell yea!”
On Saturday at the NFL Experience, we officially announced a formal relationship with the NFL Alumni Association. We have always worked with former players because they are fantastic leaders in their communities. This year, the organization made a donation to our initiative. Below is a pic of our chairman, Paul Rovey and President of NFL Alumni, Joe Pisarcik. Joe was a NFL Quarterback for nine years with the Giants, Eagles and Dolphins. Here he is seated in the center of our group. Joe and I have become pretty good friends over the past few years and I am both excited to be working with him as well as inspired by him. He is doing some great work for former players and he is a selfless man.
Joe actually drove himself to my hotel Saturday morning to pick me up, just so we could hang out and talk. Most everyone is being driven around by private drivers in limousines and black SUV’s. Not Joe. That’s just the kind of man he is. He said that he was sorry he was so busy and didn’t have more time; that he had just come from the Valor and Victor 5K, an event that was raising money for the Pat Tillman Foundation. An organization that invests in military veterans and their spouses.
Some other familiar faces in this picture too. Seated next to Mr. Pisarcik is one of my favorites, Jason Witten. And seated next to Mr. Rovey is Alex Smith. Alex and Jason have been some of our best ambassadors and have been with the Fuel Up to Play 60 program for several years. They truly understand what it means to be a professional and we are incredibly thankful to have them on our team.
I have a special appreciation for Jason Witten, being that he is a tight end, and all around great human being. He, along with Joe Thomas and Larry Fitzgerald are among my favorite players in the league right now, so yea, this year was a pretty great year.
Jason is now being coached by Mike Pope in Dallas; the tight ends coach who coached the Giants when I was with them in 2003-04 (Jason Garrett, the Cowboys head coach, was the 3rd string quarterback for the Giants which is how Pope ended up in Dallas). Jason and I were telling Alex about the crazy drills Pope would have us do after practice; and it felt good to be one of the guys again.
The NFL Experience is definitely a sight for football fans to see. If you ever get a chance to experience it, it’s worth the price of admission, especially if you have kids! One kid whom I’ve developed a bit of a friendship with over the years is Jane from Wilson Football. Jane has been working in the Wilson factory for 48 years, hand making NFL footballs in Ada, Ohio – about 30 miles from where I grew up.
I met Aunt Jane in Phoenix in 2007 at Super Bowl XLII. We talked about the weather back home and the college kids at Ohio Northern University and the Regal Beagle. And Jane loved that I caught footballs that her hands made.
Every Super Bowl that I have been to since 2007, I’ve gone to visit her at the NFL Experience. This was her last NFL Experience, her last Super Bowl and her final season on the Wilson team so I was especially grateful that I could wish her a happy retirement. As we talked a bit, she said you know, “I think we’ve had some people from your town work in the factory over the years.”
“Is that right” I said. She said, yea, I think they were laborers in the factory like myself.”
Me: “Jane” I said: “Can I have my picture taken with you?”
Jane: “Oh my heavens, why would you want to do that?”
Me: “Well, the way I see it, of all these pro football players and fans in here, not one of ’em knows more about it than you. And since you are retiring, I may never see you again.”
Jane: “Oh well, in that case, are we going to take a selfie?”
Me: “Yep, Let’s take a selfie, Jane.”