The GSB Interview: Ex-Atlanta Falcon Ovie Mughelli, Creator of “Gridiron Green” Comic Superhero

Ovie Mughelli (moo-HAY-lee) is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve come across in the five plus years since I started GreenSportsBlog. College and pro football star. Announcer. Gets interested in the climate change fight. Comes up with “Gridiron Green,” an African American, environmental comic superhero.

We were fortunate to be able to sit down with Mughelli to hear his incredible story and his plans for Gridiron Green.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Ovie, we’ve been wanting to talk with you for a long time so thank you for the opportunity. Before getting to your evolution as a climate change fighter and to Gridiron Green, tell us your back story.

Ovie Mughelli: Thanks for the opportunity, Lew. And I’ll tell you, I’ve been blessed from the beginning. My parents both were born in Nigeria who moved here at 18, 19, looking for a better life. They gave me, my two sisters and my brother a very strong work ethic combined with a duty to others. The idea of, if you can make someone’s life better, you do it. And this was our ethos from the beginning, giving even as we received help. It was a humble beginning, all of us in a one bedroom apartment, sleeping on the floor. Grew up in New York City until third grade, then moved to Charleston, South Carolina through my high school years. My dad, Olumide, became a successful OB-Gyn, is a Big Brother and involved with the Charleston Boys Club. My mom, Agnes? She got her MBA and runs his office.

 

Ovie Mughelli

Ovie Mughelli (Photo credit: Ovie Mughelli)

 

GSB: This is an American Dream story if I ever heard one. Did you dream of an NFL career in high school?

Ovie: Not really. I did well enough in high school, both in the classroom and on the football field to get a scholarship to Wake Forest as a fullback. Went there as a pre-med student, you know, to follow dad. Was interested in sports medicine, took organic chem, bio mechanics…

GSB: …Sounds like the med school track to me…

Ovie: Absolutely. My older sister, who went to the University of Richmond and then the University of South Carolina Medical School, gave me the MCAT study guides!

GSB: Doesn’t sound like the NFL was where you were headed…

Ovie: I didn’t think so early in my college career, just didn’t see it as a real possibility that I could play in the NFL. Med school beckoned but my parents and coaches believed I could do it. And, lo and behold, the Baltimore Ravens selected me in the fourth round of the 2003 NFL Draft.

GSB: Fourth round out of a seven round draft is impressive, especially as a fullback — a position that was beginning a deemphasis that continues to this day.

Ovie: Thanks, Lew! I couldn’t believe it. And, even though I was drafted I just tried to survive that first training camp. Didn’t think I’d make it.

GSB: Man, you need to have more confidence in yourself! Or maybe that self-doubt is what propelled you to success?

Ovie: That and special teams¹. Back then teams still had two fullbacks on the 53-man roster. No team kept three. Except for the Ravens that year because I showed them what I could do on “specials.” That’s how I made the team. Once I established myself in Baltimore, I started thinking about how I could give back. Started the Ovie Mughelli Foundation in my third year there — it wasn’t environmentally focused; rather it was really a classic, “give back” with education and life skills being the main thing.

GSB: And you became a Pro Bowler (aka All-Star) as a special team ace…

Ovie: Again, something I wouldn’t have predicted. That allowed me to sign a six-year free agent contract with the Atlanta Falcons in 2007 which made me the highest paid fullback in the league. So my “give back” instinct kicked into a higher gear as far as the foundation was concerned.

 

Ovie Mughelli Falcons

Ovie Mughelli during his days with the Atlanta Falcons (Photo credit: Ovie Mughelli Foundation)

 

GSB: So how and when did environment and climate change become your thing?

Ovie: This is a crazy story, Lew. First, let’s go back to my childhood in Charleston. I remember watching Captain Planet environmentally-themed cartoons back in the 1980s…

GSB: The cartoons created by CNN founder Ted Turner…

Ovie: Yes. I thought at the time that it was so cool there was a character, Kwame, who was from Africa. You didn’t see anything like that on TV. So, now, flash forward to 2007. I’ve signed with the Falcons. went to this random event in Atlanta where I met Ted Turner and his daughter, Laura Turner Seydel. They eventually became second family to me. At that time, Laura started asking me, ‘What does your foundation do? What are you doing on the environment?’ I said, ‘Nothing. It’s not so important as access to education, life skills.’ Laura’s response? ‘The environment is connected to everything. If you love kids, you have to get involved with the environment!’ That really opened my eyes. I had thought the environment was for tree-huggers, for rich folks who didn’t have to worry about their basic needs so they had the time and means to care about the environment. But then I started to delve into it, and the more I did, the more I got it.

 

Ovie Laura Leilani

Ovie Mughelli flanked by Laura Turner Seydel (r) and Leilani Münter, the self-described eco “vegan, hippie chick with a race car” (Photo credit: Getty Images)

 

GSB: What did you start to understand?

Ovie: I learned that climate change is not just about polar bears. It’s also about Hurricane Katrina, wildfires in the West, food deserts, the Syrian crisis and much, much more. Thanks to the Captain Planet Foundation and the Turner Seydels, I got to attend numerous climate change-related seminars and conferences. It became crystal clear: You couldn’t argue the science.

I also learned that people of color are the most affected and the least able to adapt to climate change. Underserved and unengaged communities are impacted by climate issues for a longer duration. It effects health, economy and education due to the residual implications. And yet robust conversation with these communities are not heavily pursued to make these folks change agents.

So the question became how to combat climate change? Laura Turner Seydel urged me to get involved, to use the platform of sports to engage fans who, she said, ‘Love clean air, clean water and God’s Green Earth. You have to give people the mindset to make green normal.’ And Laura again pressed me about kids, saying, ‘Ovie, you can’t say you love kids if you don’t advocate for the environment!”

That hits home because my wife and I have three kids — our first two are girls and then a boy. Our daughter Nesia and our son Obasi were both born prematurely. We weren’t able to hold Obasi until he was 16 days old and could take either of them out of the NICU² for a long time because of the poor air quality in Atlanta — thankfully, they’re fine now. This brought environmental problems home more than anything and was unacceptable! So I felt I had to do something.

GSB: So what did you do with your interest in climate, and with Laura’s nudges?

Ovie: Through the Ovie Mughelli Foundation, I started to run football camps with an environmental theme. We had “Recycle On the Run” drills, had them answer environmental questions, take positive environmental actions and more. I also started to give climate change-themed speeches as part of a Green Speaker Series.

GSB: What were you talking about?

Ovie: Basically I said we have to go beyond complaining about the environment, about climate change. We had to shift from complain to action! I also emphasized that shifting to a greener, cleaner economy would be a winner job-wise and otherwise.

GSB: Did you talk about environment and the climate in the locker room with your Falcons teammates? If so, how did they react?

Ovie: I sure did. And look, teammates in an NFL locker room, we’re like brothers, supporting each other out on the field. So I felt comfortable talking about my climate activism with them. Now, it did raise some eyebrows among the guys like Matt Ryan, Tony Gonzalez, and Roddy White. They basically asked, ‘is climate change real?’ I told ’em, ‘Yeah, it’s not only real, it’s human caused and we need to deal with it, sooner rather than later.’ And they came around on it. Other guys fought fiercely with me, saying ‘it’s a hoax,’ or ‘climate change is just a way for the government to take more of my money.’ I don’t know that I changed those minds.

GSB: Sounds like, from talking to eco-athletes who are active today, that the locker rooms sound similar as they did a decade or so ago. That needs to improve, fast. So I get the environmental football camps and the speaking engagements. But how did your environmental super hero cartoon idea — Gridiron Green — come to pass?

Ovie: Well, it goes back to Captain Planet! I always wanted to recreate an environmentally-themed comic book, but with a black super-hero — Kwame times 1,000! — for planet earth. Environmental justice, the right to clean air and water, the right to live healthy, were the themes. I sketched out a rough version in 2009, showed to some corporations and the NFL for sponsorship back then; they showed some initial interest but not enough to fund it. Still, I kept going and in 2012 I had a friend-of-a-friend who is an artist, do an even better sketch.

 

Captain Planet Kwame

Kwame from Captain Planet (Credit: Captain Planet Foundation)

 

GSB: Then what happened?

Ovie: It kinda went on the back burner for several years — I didn’t really know how to market a comic book. Then, in 2016, I went to a youth summit led by John R. Seydel — Laura’s son. One of the sessions, “Comics Uniting Nations,” not surprisingly caught my eye.

GSB: I can see why! What was it about?

Ovie: The UN had recently published 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). They were wordy, wonky and a bit confusing. So folks at Comics Uniting Nations and UNICEF thought ‘how about a comic book or books to make the SDGs clear and even fun.’ I thought, ‘Wait a second — I got this!!!” They liked it and gave some initial seed funding to help get Gridiron Green to get to the next level. That allowed me to hire a top flight artist, Matt Bahr, to work with me to tighten up the look, feel and story.

GSB: How has that gone so far?

Ovie: It’s been a two-year journey for Matt and me, sharing our drawings with folks at the NFL, as well as at environmental and social justice nonprofits. We want to use Gridiron Green to reach people who have not engaged on environment and climate yet, who don’t know what a carbon footprint is. Gridiron Green can be an important gateway to get people involved on climate, including conservatives, especially conservative sports fans! And we’re looking at more than a comic book, from curriculum to video games to toys to even feature animated films. We’ve asked for buy-in and financial support, moving the ball forward a bit but not enough to publish yet.

 

Ovie Gridiron Green

Prototypes of Gridiron Green (Photo credit: Ovie Mughelli)

 

GSB: It sounds like you’re moving towards the goal line; what has to happen next so you guys can finally make Gridiron Green a reality.

Ovie: Right now, we’re working on tightening up the business plan — we’re looking for funding in the neighborhood of $100,000, which includes curriculum.

GSB: This seems like a doable number to me; please keep us informed as to how fundraising goes!

 

¹ Special teams are the “third phase” of American football (offense and defense being the other two). They consist of the players on the kickoff and punt coverage, kickoff and punt returns, as well as field goal units.
² NICU = Neo-natal intensive care unit

 


 

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The GSB Interview: David Muller, Green-Sports-Corporate Partner Matchmaker

David Muller has successfully shown sports teams, venues, and leagues, as well as corporations large and small, the value of attaching themselves to the Green-Sports Movement. After playing a key role in building the Green Sports Alliance from start up to mature force, Muller went off on his own to increase his impact. We sat down with Muller to get his take on the Movement, where it’s going and what he sees his role as being.

 

GreenSportsBlog: David, how did a kid from Springfield, IL find his way to the epicenter of the Green-Sports Movement?

David Muller: Things certainly didn’t start out that way. Yes, I am from Springfield. Grew up a Bulls fan during the Jordan Years, and of course love the Bears and White Sox too. But I didn’t intend to work in sports at all. I wanted to move west and went to Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR as a Religious Studies major. Thought I would go the academia route but you know what? Whenever I looked at an academic, they seemed so unhappy—bored, really, and removed from the real world. So I ditched that plan and wandered—worked in education and journalism, taught English in Argentina, then worked in software project management. Over time I came to the conclusion that I needed to work in sustainability in some way, shape or form. Ended up going to the Bainbridge Graduate Institute’s (BGI) Graduate Business School for Sustainability in Seattle. Now part of Presidio Graduate School, I was attracted to it because it embedded sustainability in every aspect of the curriculum with the goal of making the world a better place through business, or “changing business for good” as the motto goes.

GSB: That’s a lofty goal, indeed…

DM: No doubt about it. They really want to change business from the inside out.

GSB: So how did you go from BGI to the Green Sports Alliance?

DM: During my time at BGI, Jason Twill came to speak. He was working at Vulcan

GSB: …Vulcan is Paul Allen’s company, Allen being one of the co-founders of Microsoft.

DM: Correct. Included among Vulcan’s assets at the time were the Seattle Seahawks, Seattle Sounders and the Portland Trail Blazers. Twill worked for Allen at Vulcan and was one of the co-founders of the GSA. He made the point that sports can change the world; that it can be a powerful platform for social change. I got it immediately, being an avid sports fan, having experienced in person and up close the power of sports to be a great unifier. Twill also said, “If you hear someone speak that inspires you, reach out to him/her.” So I took him at his word and did just that. The GSA hadn’t even launched yet, but Jason invited me to a board meeting/workshop. Soon enough I was an intern, there for its birth. And 9 months later, I was the second-ever staffer behind the original Executive Director Martin Tull.

GSB: What was your role there?

DM: I started out as a Jack-of-all-Trades, handling communications, writing blogs, and researching the ‘state of the state’ of the fledgling Green Sports Movement. I developed and managed the webinar program from its inception, focusing on the key identified impact areas of waste, energy, water, purchasing, transportation, and fan engagement, and featuring leading practitioners and successful case studies. We secured some terrific speakers early on, including several GMs and Directors of Operations of major professional sports venues, executives from international corporations like Aramark and Waste Management, as well as leading environmental NGOS and the U.S. EPA—and we quickly built a solid audience.

muller-matt-cohen

David Muller (Photo credit: Matt Cohen)

 

GSB: How many people attend those webinars?

DM: We started with an audience of 20-30; as of the spring 2016, we were getting 150-200 people per webinar. And then I took on generating memberships among teams, venues and leagues.

GSB: How did you do there?

DM: Well, from about 20 members when I came on board in 2011 as Membership Director, the GSA grew to nearly 400 members as of 2016.

GSB: That’s really impressive, David. Congratulations! How much did the memberships go for?

DM: There were two levels: Basic was $500/year and Premier went for $2,500. Premier members got a deeper level of direct support on greening initiatives from myself and other staff, as well as more significant promotion through the GSA website, public communications, and events.

GSB: What kind of services did the GSA offer its members?

DM: As far as the team and venue members were concerned, the we helped them reach their sustainability commitments and goals, whether it be recycling, composting, energy efficiency, etc. We really became sustainability consultants for stadium operators who increasingly were getting the direction from team management that they needed to take smart and fiscally responsible actions to reduce environmental impacts.

GSB: And they weren’t equipped to do so…

DM: Well, we provided the sustainability expertise they needed by reviewing their operations, examining their supply chain, researching available grants and incentives, etc.

GSB: At $500-$2,500 per year, that’s a great bargain!

DM: We thought so. And the spirit of collaboration among GSA members and staff was incredible.

GSB: Can you share a specific example of how you and the GSA worked with a team?

DM: Ah, it’s tough to pick out just one…

GSB: That’s why I ask the tough questions!

DM: OK, I really enjoyed working with the Baltimore Ravens, M&T Bank Stadium and the Maryland Stadium Authority. My key contact was Jeff Provenzano, who at the time was running Stadium Operations at M&T Bank Stadium. When we first met in Baltimore, we spoke for almost three hours about how Jeff and his team, who already helped make the operations more efficient, needed to secure the investments to take their greening program to the next level. It was invigorating, really.

GSB: Did the Ravens buy in?

DM: The Ravens owners challenged the stadium ops team to prove greening measures could save them money. So, Jeff and his team showed them how this could work with a modest investment and a terrific pay off. The entire staff at the stadium was engaged in a massive effort to lower its energy usage. It started off with little things like closing doors when leaving the office, turning lights off, reporting spaces that were being heated/cooled even though no one spent any significant time there (e.g. supply closets). Over several months, they reduced their energy usage by some 40-50%, which translated to an annual savings of ~$500,000—or about the cost of a rookie contract at the time.

GSB: I bet that got their attention.

DM: No doubt about it. Ownership embraced this and agreed to invest some capital in the program. They decided to go for LEED certification for existing buildings, but in order to achieve it, they needed access to a substantial amount of comparison data from other stadiums. In the spirit of collaboration that really defined the GSA at the time, I was able to work with other GSA members and obtain the relevant, sensitive data the crew in Baltimore needed for their LEED application, and they were able to attain Gold status a year or two later.

mt-bank-stadium-balt-sun

M&T Bank Stadium, now the LEED Gold certified home of the Baltimore Ravens, thanks in part to the work of David Muller and the Green Sports Alliance. (Photo credit: Baltimore Sun)

 

GSB: That’s a great story; one that the NFL should’ve told. Turning to the annual GSA Summit; that must also have been part of your responsibilities, no?

DM: Absolutely. The GSA was a very a small team the first few years, so everyone had to pitch in. We only had about three or four months of planning time for the first summit in Portland in 2011. Despite the short lead-time it turned out to be a big success—and we surprisingly turned a meaningful profit, mainly through getting the sports supply chain as sponsors/exhibitors–the Aramarks and Waste Managements of the world.

GSB: Did you manage that as well?

DM: No, sponsorships were mainly the responsibility of Martin Tull at the time, while I handled the memberships and communications.

GSB: As the Summit grew over time, with 700-800 attendees, the responsibilities must’ve grown with it.

DM: No doubt about it. I played a central role in designing the program, securing speakers, writing up session descriptions, coordinating volunteers, that sort of thing. And everyone else on the GSA team was multi-tasking as well. It was lots of work but it was also a lot of fun as we were all mission-driven and riding this rapidly-rising wave of engagement and activity.

muller-chicago-gsa

David Muller (l) presenting University of California, Berkeley with the Pac-12 Zero-Waste Award, at the 2015 Green Sports Alliance Summit in Chicago. (Photo credit: David Muller)

 

GSB: I can imagine. Why did you end up leaving GSA?

DM: Well, over time, in large part because of how many members we brought in while still maintaining a very small staff, the GSA became more focused on PR and storytelling—which they’re good at and is important—while moving away from the consulting, advisory, and operations support work. We simply didn’t have the capacity to continue the same level of service to individual members.

GSB: …Like what you did with the Ravens?

DM: Yes. And that’s what I was most interested in doing. Plus, I was also interested in the health and wellness aspects of sustainability and seeing how sports venues, and everyone who spends time in them, could benefit by focusing on people’s health and wellness within their operations, be it that of staff, fans, the active roster, etc. So, I left GSA last summer and became a sustainability-focused consultant. I’ve worked with small-to-medium sized health and wellness organizations including Green Seal, Delos/International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), and AtmosAir—to help them with market research and also how to compellingly present what they offer to sports venues.

GSB: I gotta believe sports venues and teams want to keep their athletes healthy—and their fans, for that matter. Good niche. Talk about your involvement in Sport and Sustainability International or SandSI.

DM: SandSI is an outgrowth of work I did in Europe in the spring of 2015 with Allen Hershkowitz…

GSB: Then the President of GSA.

DM: Yes. Allen, as well as Alice Henly, who also worked with Allen at the NRDC before coming to the GSA. I had connected in late 2014 with Neil Beecroft, who was the Sustainability Manager of UEFA at the time.

GSB: And, shameless plug, Neil’s a GreenSportsBlog interviewee.

DM: Yes. So in conversation with Neil, we kind of realized that while Europe is ahead of the U.S. in terms of environmental concern and government action, it was behind in Green-Sports. So, we accepted Neil’s invitation to meet with him and other leaders of the European Green-Sports Movement in Lausanne, Switzerland, as well as in Paris and London.

GSB: Lausanne is the capital of European sports, home of the IOC, FIFA and UEFA.

DM: The European sports entities, to a person, said “we need help” with greening. We were excited about sharing the knowledge we had gained over the previous few years, and making the GSA a truly global organization. But the GSA felt, at the time, that there was still a lot more to do in North America, and didn’t see an immediate ROI, so the European work was put on the back burner.

GSB: And, Allen, having left GSA, became one of the prime movers of SandSI.

DM: Yes. It’s still early days but things have really heated up over the past six months or so. I am an Organizing Committee member, and am helping develop the membership program for sports entities as well as corporations and NGOs.

GSB: Aside from the geographic differences, what do you see as the main distinctions between SandSI and GSA?

DM: I’d say the main differentiator is that SandSI takes a broader view of sustainability than the GSA. SandSI takes a “Triple Bottom Line” approach, considering social sustainability and ethics on an equal level with environmental and economic sustainability. The GSA made a strategic decision very early to become experts on the environmental side only, which made good sense at the time as a start-up trying to gain relevance. But I think an environmental-only approach puts a ceiling on what you can accomplish, because legitimate sustainability is comprehensive at its core, and the best environmental policies are always at risk of backsliding or discontinuation if the people responsible for carrying them out aren’t well-taken care of themselves.

GSB: I think that’s smart overall but my fear is that environment, and in particular, climate change, could be de-emphasized—just when the opposite is necessary.

DM: Oh don’t worry, SandSI places great priority on taking on climate change! But I think people often forgot that environmentalism is still ultimately about people, about keeping the environment clean and stable in order for humans to thrive. It’s not about saving the Earth for Earth’s sake (in the geologic timeframe, all of human history is but a blip), it’s about keeping the Earth livable so that our children, grandchildren, and grandchildren’s grandchildren have the opportunity to lead healthy, happy, meaningful lives as well. It is for them, as well as those already suffering from its impacts right now, that we confront climate change with all our resolve and ingenuity.

GSB: Amen!

 

 


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