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 (Mock) Interview: Drew Brees; Standing Tall on Climate Change

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees broke Peyton Manning’s record for the most career passing yards in NFL history at a raucous Mercedes-Benz Superdome a week ago Monday. The next day, about 300 miles to the east of the Crescent City, Hurricane Michael plowed into Panama City, Florida. 

Brees, who played a crucial role as a high profile ambassador supporting the recovery of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit, had to be affected by the devastation wrought by this latest mega-storm. With that in mind, GreenSportsBlog spoke with Brees to see if he has made the connection between the Katrinas and Michaels — as well as the Harveys, Irmas and Marias of the world and climate change.

OK, we didn’t really talk to Brees — he was too busy preparing for Sunday’s game with the Baltimore Ravens.

So we’re doing the next best thing: Imagining a conversation with Brees about Katrina, Michael and climate change.

To be clear, Brees has not spoken out about climate change, at least as far as I can tell. I have no idea what he thinks on the issue. 

And even though he publicly stated that NFL players should stand for the national anthem, thus aligning himself with President Trump, a climate change denier/skeptic, that does not mean Brees is a denier/skeptic. In fact, he seems to be a thoughtful fellow, one who relies heavily on data to do his job. So, this faux interview posits that he would follow the scientific data on climate change.

This is our second imagined conversation about climate change with a mega sports star. LeBron James was the first back in 2013.

GreenSportsBlog believes that finding über athletes who are willing to engage with their fans on climate change is absolutely crucial to scaling the impact of the Green-Sports movement. That’s why we’re kinda-sorta talking to Brees, a beloved figure in Louisiana and throughout the football world.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Drew, congratulations on breaking the NFL career passing yards record held by a great son of New Orleans, Peyton Manning. In fact, Peyton sent this short congratulatory video to you.

 

 

Drew Brees: Uh, thanks, Peyton…I guess. And thank you, Lew. This is truly a team honor. Or teams. Going back to the 2006 group, my first year with the Saints, when the squad came back to New Orleans after being nomads in 2005, post-Hurricane Katrina…

 

Drew Brees

Drew Brees talks to Lisa Salters of ESPN after breaking the NFL’s career passing yards record (Photo credit: ESPN)

 

GSB: …That’s right, Katrina hit New Orleans in August, 2005, two weeks before the start of the season. So the Saints played their home games in places like Baton Rouge and San Antonio.

Drew: That’s right. The city was severely damaged — on its knees, really — and, coming in as a free agent, I was seen as damaged goods because the then-San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers released me and my surgically repaired right shoulder…

GSB: …And you were seen as too short at 6′ 0″ coming out of Purdue.

Drew: But I got very lucky — the Saints and coach Sean Payton took a chance on me and in 2006, just as the team was ready to return to a rebuilt Superdome. It’s been magical since our first game back in New Orleans, on that Monday night vs. the Atlanta Falcons.

 

 

GSB: You ain’t kidding. The 2005 Saints were 3-13 and there were rumors that the team was going to permanently leave a Katrina-battered New Orleans for San Antonio or elsewhere. But with you at the helm, and kind of taking the team and New Orleans on your back, the Saints had the most successful season in its 40 year existence, going 10-6 and reaching the NFC Championship Game.

Drew: It was incredible, so, when you think of it, the career passing yards record is really born of the spirit of New Orleans post-Katrina. And you’re kind to say I carried the city and the team. It was as much the other way around — the city lifted me. The 2006 team lifted me — guys like Reggie Bush, Marques Colston, the late, great Will Smith, and Steve Gleason, my buddy who blocked that punt vs. the Falcons in our first game back to the Dome and now courageously battling ALS.

GSB: Gleason is indeed a profile in courage. And then, in February 2010 in Super Bowl XLIV, you led the Saints to their first — and to date, only — championship, defeating the aforementioned Peyton Manning and his Indianapolis Colts.

Drew: I know I use this word a lot but it was INCREDIBLE!

GSB: As a Jets fan I hope I get one taste of “incredible” one of these years. But I digress. Let’s talk about Katrina. You arrived in New Orleans a year after the storm and almost immediately got involved in rebuilding efforts.

Drew: My wife Brittany and I chose to come here in large part because we thought we could do something special here. When we arrived in the spring of 2006, it was like a ghost town. There still were boats in the middle of roads, and cars still upside down in people’s living rooms. What was amazing was that we leaned on each other. People were trying to rebuild their homes, rebuild their lives, yet they were still coming to the Dome to cheer on the Saints because it gave them so much energy and enthusiasm…just this feeling that we’re all in this together.

GSB: Well, you put your money where your mouth is. In 2007, your Brees Dream Foundation entered into a partnership with Operation Kids to rebuild city schools, parks, playgrounds, and athletic centers. It also funded after school and mentoring programs.

Drew: It was the least I could do.

 

Drew Brees Siding

Drew Brees installs a piece of siding at a home under construction at the Habitat for Humanity Musicians Village in the 9th Ward in May, 2007, 21 months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

 

GSB: Thankfully, from a New Orleans perspective, there hasn’t been another Katrina. But these once in a hundred year hurricanes are happening with much more frequency than that. Just last year, in a very short period of time, Harvey hit the Houston area, Irma blasted South Florida and Maria obliterated the British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. And of course last month, Florence devastated the Carolinas and, the day after you broke the record, Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle as a Category IV storm.

Drew: I know. I raffled off one of the game balls from the record-setter with all of the proceeds going to Michael relief. J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans of course did incredible work in that area post-Harvey last year. You still feel kind of helpless, because there’s really nothing you can do to stop it.

 

JJ Watt Houston Business

J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans (c) with a $5,000,000 check from his Foundation, raised by donations from thousands of fans post 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. The funds went to Harvey-related relief efforts (Photo credit: Houston Business Journal)

 

GSB: Is that really true? In the short term, governments can build stronger levees, create manmade barrier islands to keep some storm water out of cities, make sure that future urban development takes the environment into account, and more.

Drew: I guess. But those things cost a lot of money.

GSB: Yes, but these storms are costing billions, and that’s not including the human costs. There is a strong case to be made that the investments in levees and the like make financial sense in light of the costs. Just ask the folks in the Netherlands, where those types of investments were made decades ago, and they have largely been successful.

Drew: If what you say is backed up by real data and the benefits of those types investments outweigh the costs then we are foolish not to investigate and make them.

GSB: The data is there in terms of investments to help areas adapt to a changing environment. But these are band-aids, really. The bigger problem is the increased frequency of severe hurricanes. Do you think human-caused climate change is having an impact?

Drew: Well, I’m going to start by saying I’m not a scientist BUT don’t worry, Lew, I’m not going to use that as a dodge.

GSB: Thank YOU!!

Drew: No problem. Because even though I am a man of deep faith I also am a man who appreciates science and data — the two can definitely co-exist in my mind. So when I read that 97 percent of climate scientists say climate change is real and human caused, that gets my attention. If our analytics department told me that the Baltimore Ravens defense, our opponent this Sunday, is going to blitz 97 percent of the time when we lined up a certain way, you bet we will call a play to counteract that blitz. Or if 97 percent of doctors studying the brains of deceased NFL players say that brain trauma from football caused the players to suffer from CTE

GSB: …Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma…

Drew …I would believe that there’s a strong link between football and CTE. That’s why, while I love football and think it’s the greatest game in the world, I think kids should not play tackle football until they’re of high school age so their brains and bodies are more developed. Play flag football until then. But I digress. The data and the science are clear: Climate change is real and it’s human caused and it’s having a disastrous effect now on my city and on coastal cities all over the United States and elsewhere.

GSB: So what should we do about it?

Drew: Great question. I have to admit I need to study the potential remedies. I’m a small government conservative kind of guy but, as with the idea of building levees, if public investment can yield a positive return on climate, I’d be open to it.

GSB: How about a market-based, revenue neutral price on carbon that is being advocated by a group called the Climate Leadership Council (CLC), led by Republican elder statesmen like James Baker and George Shultz? Or a similar plan as proposed by Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a group with which I volunteer. The gist of both is that a fee would be placed on carbon-based fuels (coal, natural gas, oil) at the mine, well, or border. The money raised from that fee would be returned to U.S. households in the form of a monthly dividend rather than going to the Treasury. Higher prices on gas and other products due to the fee would encourage citizens to find and demand lower carbon options and accelerate the growth of the clean economy.

Drew: Now that’s a playbook I’d like to dive into. After the season, of course.

GSB: I’ll be happy to send you some info. I’ll wait until after February 3, the date of Super Bowl LIII at the LEED Platinum Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. One more question: Do you guys ever talk about climate change in the locker room? Say after Harvey or Maria hit?

Drew: Maybe a couple of guys mention it here or there but it really didn’t bubble up after those storms. We of course talk about the national anthem — I believe that everyone should stand despite the fact that I also believe that African Americans are often unfairly treated by police — and we talk about healthcare, both for NFL players and everyone else, and other issues. But climate change? Not that much.

GSB: What do you think would change that?

Drew: Truth is, I don’t have a real answer. I hate to say it but it may take a few more Katrinas.

 


 

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