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 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.

Behind the Scenes at Super Bowl XLIX

The Play 60 Kid Zone at NFL Experience.

The Play 60 Kid Zone at NFL Experience.

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.

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Are you sure kid?

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.

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Alfred Morris, Victor Cruz, Larry Fitzgerald, Phil Simms, Herm Edwards

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.”

Larry Fitzgerald is a Pro's Pro.

Larry Fitzgerald is a Pro’s Pro.

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!?

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God Bless

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.

President & CEO of NFL Alumni Association with Paul Rovey, Chairman of DMI.

President & CEO of NFL Alumni Association with Paul Rovey, Chairman of DMI.

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.

Talking tight end play with Jason Witten & Alex Smith

Talking tight end play and sharing a few laughs with Jason Witten & Alex Smith

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.”

Aunt Jane has been sewing footballs for 48 NFL seasons

Aunt Jane has been sewing footballs for 48 NFL seasons.

Browns Leadership is #2

photo by Joseph Maiorana, USA TODAY Sports)

(photo by Joseph Maiorana, USA TODAY Sports)

In 1987 Ernest Byner fumbled and for the first time I realized the game of football was more than just a game. Not only was I a 9 year old loyal Browns fan who could name every starter on the team and their jersey number, I was a football player myself. I wore #10 that season. I can still hear Dick Enberg saying “Oh my!” as Denver recovered the fumble and Byner hung his head in the end zone. Overcome with numbing disbelief and tears filled my eyes when #44 fumbled the ball and with it, our chances of making it to the Super Bowl. It didn’t seem fair. We were so close! It was more than just a football game that day – it meant so much more to that 10 year old boy who loved the Dawg Pound Defense and believed Bernie Kosar was the best quarterback in the NFL.

Since The Fumble, 27 seasons of Browns football have come and gone, none of them resulting in a trip to the Super Bowl. There have also been almost 27 starting quarterbacks for the team since then – 24 I think. And not one of them better than Bernie Kosar unfortunately. Time and time again, quarterbacks have come to Cleveland and fail to lead the team to the playoffs. I’ve heard some say, “but it’s a team sport, it takes everyone on the team to win, not just the quarterback.” They would be right – yes, it does take everyone to win. But it takes leadership to build a team, and the Browns have been lacking it. At the company I work for, we have core values that guide our business. I wrote about Integrity in a previous post which is one of our five core values. The others are leadership, excellence, commitment and collaboration.

Whether you are part of a corporate team or a football team, I’m a firm believer in having a shared set of goals and values. Without goals, I’m not sure how you know where you are going and without values, the right people will not be going along with you. Leaders have a special ability to make those around them better, they find and oftentimes create ways to win as an underdog, and they do the things on and off the field to put themselves, their organizations, and their fans in a position to have success.

There are great examples of quarterback leadership in the NFL today. Professionals who take responsibility not only for themselves, but for their entire team. We know who they are and who they aren’t. Fast forward 27 years from the Fumble and the Browns, well, they drafted Johnny Manziel, then put him into a starting role at the most important position in the NFL. And did so knowing he fits no one’s definition of a leader. In fact, I think he is the exact opposite of most people’s definition of a leader. I’m all for giving second chances and I’m hoping Manziel turns it around. But Johnny if you somehow find yourself reading this, know that your teammates and the fans are the reason you are in the position you are in. It’s not all about you. You are in the National Football League now – It is not your right to be a Cleveland Brown, it is your privilege. The sooner you figure this out the better, because Browns nation is getting real tired of your games.

Passing Along Advice from an NFL Legend

Rams Team Photo

Some of the best advice I ever received was from a legendary NFL quarterback, but more importantly, a man of conviction and someone who always leads by example. In 2004 after a long day of practice during training camp at the University of Albany, New York Giants quarterback Kurt Warner told me, if all I became at the end of my career was a professional football player that I will have missed the true meaning of playing in the NFL.

He told me to use football as a platform to do greater things with my life; not to use football to define my life. And looking back now after more than a decade has passed, not surprisingly, he was right.

On Tuesday of this week I shared this experience with the Van Buren Knights high school football team. The Knights made it to the OHSAA State Playoffs for the first time in school history. My message was simple for them: Football is the greatest game in the world. Be the greatest player you can be on the field, play with confidence, and be mentally prepared for the moment that you may be called upon to do something you’ve never done before.

On Wednesday of this week I shared this anecdote with student athletes at the University of Findlay and several other sports business students, some whom will be seeking careers this spring upon graduation. My hope for them is that they use the platform of a college education and an athletic scholarship to do great things while an Oiler, but even greater things as a professional.

Findlay Career Day 2014

On Friday of this week I was invited to share my experiences in the NFL with the Wheaton Rams and some of their parents. The Rams are a great group of kids preparing for the biggest game of their young lives. This Sunday they will play in their Super Bowl against the team that gave them their only loss of the season. My wish for them is first and foremost, that they have fun and no one gets injured. After that, my hope is they remember that teamwork is what got them to this point and they will be friends with their teammates for a very long time. And if you are going to play the game, play to win. Win with sportsmanship and respect the game. It truly is the best game in the world.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

The Write Decision

Rashard Mendenhall

The recent Rashard Mendenhall retirement announcement brought me back to college. One of the hardest football decisions I ever had to make came during my red-shirt sophomore year at Findlay. In order to graduate on time I needed to take an English class that was only offered during the same time as football practice.

 As if it wasn’t hard enough to be a poem-writing tight-end at a football school, I was a poem-writing tight-end missing practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Needless to say I wasn’t seeing much playing time for that coach, but I understood and thought my playing time was fair that year considering the situation.

 I’ll never forget the conversation with the coach at the time. He’s no longer at the school and didn’t last long in that position, but before moving on, he spent plenty of time telling me what kind of player I was. He said something about me being a poor teammate and afraid to do the right thing for the team. To which I replied by hanging my head and just wanting to get the hell out of his office with a little dignity.

The response I offered him was that in order to graduate on time I would have to take this class, at this time, or stay another semester because this class was a requirement for my major. He didn’t seem to care much about my major. But then again, reading and writing poetry is not for everyone. One has to appreciate these things in order to understand them. What I understood though even then, was who I was. I was a pretty decent football player but I was also a passionate writer, assistant editor of The Envoy and team player off the field in my writing groups. I was a writer as much as I was a football player.

 The irony here is that my professors were my biggest fans on the field, did everything they could to be supportive of our team and generally just cared about me as a person. Rather than argue this point about equally being a writer and football player, I channeled it, and that sequence of events changed my mindset about writing. It motivated me to be a better writer and it gave me a reassuring sense of confidence that I was doing what was right.

I mean, this was college right? — Higher education; preparing for life’s journey through curriculum application and character development… Maybe at Alabama or Miami, football players do not miss practices for English class. Of course classes are offered more frequently to prevent that from occurring.

At the end of the day, college is about experiences, choices, getting an education and growing. I learned during that time; what is popular is not always easy. But more than anything, what I learned was having balance to my life was imperative.

When I read of Mendenhall’s retirement, I thought to myself, there is a true professional. Someone who has figured it out; someone on our team.

It Starts with School Breakfast

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As a kid, there was always food in the refrigerator for us to eat before school. My mom worked nights and usually didn’t get home before we were off to school, but she always made sure there was enough to eat. There was always milk in the fridge, cereal, pancakes, fruit of some kind, toast and probably some junk food too.

Having the usual breakfast foods around the house was something I took for granted as a kid. My family didn’t have a whole lot in comparison to today’s standards, but it was more than enough. And by enough, I mean I wasn’t one of the kids that went to the cafeteria before school started to eat breakfast with the poor kids. (That’s what we called the handful of kids that were on the free and reduced lunch program) No one was mean to them or anything like that; in fact most of them were my friends by the time we graduated high school. However we all know kids can be mean, especially in middle school; and every differentiating factor is a finger-pointing big deal.

Good thing the older we get the wiser we become, because I’ve learned that eating breakfast at school just may be the most important thing a student does at school! A recent study concluded that kids who eat breakfast and are physically active perform better on standardized tests, have fewer behavior issues at school and have increased memory and focus.

This week is National School Breakfast Week and the work being done by the National Dairy Council and Feeding America to address issues like Hunger and School Breakfast Initiatives is needed more now than ever. More parents are unemployed than in recent history which means more families are struggling to get by. The negative stigma of eating breakfast at school started a long time ago, and has manifested into an unfortunate reality. Kids, who eat breakfast at school or who participate in the free and reduced meal program, in many places, unfortunately feel like they are wearing a scarlet letter. They are pressured into embarrassment and made to feel as though they are different because they eat breakfast at school. Because they are hungry. In many instances, eating at school is the only place a child does eat.

Being the leaders off the field and true professionals they are, twenty-five NFL players are eating school breakfast this week in connection with the Fuel Up to Play 60 program to raise awareness and address this stereotype. We can do our part too by supporting school meal programs, considering a donation to your local food pantry and not pointing fingers at the hungry kids.