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: Reduction In Motion’s Kelsey Hallowell, Helping to Efficiently Reduce Waste at Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium

Kelsey Hallowell is a Professional Trash Talker.

She plies that unusual trade for Reduction In Motion, a forward-leaning waste reduction consultancy in Baltimore. One of Kelsey’s clients is the Maryland Stadium Authority which, among other things, owns Camden Yards (home of baseball’s Orioles) and M&T Bank Stadium (home of the NFL’s Ravens).

GreenSportsBlog talked to Kelsey, whose official title is Communications and Outreach Coordinator, about the unique aspects of working with sports venues.

And talking trash.

GreenSportsBlog: Kelsey, I love your job title! How does one get to be a professional trash talker?

Kelsey Hallowell: Well Lew, for me it started out as a little girl in Duxbury, Massachusetts. I was always outside playing – the joke with my family is as a toddler, my parents would set me beside them as they gardened, and I would eat handfuls of dirt.

GSB: Uh…Another way of saying you have “an appreciation for the environment”

KH: YES! Then I ended up attending Washington College, a small liberal arts school in Chestertown on the Eastern Shore of Maryland…

GSB: Sounds like an outdoorsy place…

KH: …It is. In fact, I got to be a part of the first cohort of something called the Chesapeake Semester. It was amazing. Rather than being stuck in a classroom, we went out into the environment, into the field to learn. Talked to and worked with farmers, scientists, and historians for environmental causes throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

 

Kelsey Headshot Color

Kelsey Hallowell, trash talker at Reduction In Motion (Photo credit: Reduction In Motion)

 

GSB: What a great program! I can see how you would end up in the trash talking, waste reduction business.

KH: Actually I started in the recycling and waste world while at Washington College. I worked with the Center for Environment & Society (CES), which is linked with the college and Chestertown. CES focuses on social and environmental issues.

GSB: What was your role?

KH: I worked on a variety of projects. Not too surprisingly, I was one of a handful of students who helped with recycling on campus. We got into the nitty gritty of it, which was a great experience.

GSB: What do you mean by nitty gritty?

KH: We collected the recycling by hand, separating glass by color, while also separating plastics, metals, paper and cardboard. We also helped to reinvigorate composting on campus and started a campus garden.

GSB: Not glamorous but it sounds like a great training ground…What did you do once you graduated?

KH: While I was still at Washington College, I went to a presentation by an alum who worked at Reduction In Motion. I thought, “what they do is really cool.” One thing led to another and, in 2012, I became a trash talker at Reduction In Motion.

GSB: So what does Reduction In Motion do?

KH: The company was started in 2002 by Bill Griffith. He worked for a long time in the hazardous and medical waste industry. He saw how much waste went into the red bags designated for regulated medical waste and how much of that didn’t really belong there. Bill also realized that hospitals — and many other types of businesses and venues — really had very little idea about their waste: how much they generate, where it goes, how much it costs…

GSB: How could hospitals not know how much their waste hauling cost?

KH: That’s what Bill asked! So he launched the company to help hospitals and other healthcare facilities understand their waste streams better, more efficiently deal with it, and save money by doing so. I started as a Greening Facilitator for hospitals in Baltimore City.

 

Bill Griffith at Audit

Bill Griffith, founder of Reduction In Motion, taking part in a waste audit (Photo credit: Reduction In Motion)

 

GSB: What is a Greening Facilitator?

KH: I basically helped the ‘waste generators’ – clinicians, administrative staff, food service and waste handlers (housekeeping and facilities) – make sure the different types of waste went into the correct waste or recycling stream.

GSB: How did the doctors and hospital staff react?

KH: Some were really into it, some not so much. A few hospitals really got it. One had an already-established Green Team by the time we arrived. We worked with them to use compost to help fertilize a garden they had established.

GSB: That sounds like a real success.

KH: It was. We’ve found that one of the keys to success for our clients is to stick to the basics: What and how much waste are you generating? With recycling, what kind of bins do you have? Is signage clearly communicating what goes into which bin? Are you following where the waste and recycling goes after it leaves your premises?

GSB: Simple, yet important.

KH: That’s really it. Set it up and help maintain the program.

GSB: You then moved up from Greening Facilitator to your current trash talking position: Communications and Outreach Coordinator. What does that entail?

KH: Well, we’re a small operation with less than 10 employees, so the job has a bit of everything in it. I help support our clients, from Virginia to New Jersey, with educational materials and the aforementioned signage. Management of our website and social media, developing presentations, and supporting sales are also parts of my day to day.

GSB: Sounds busy and also varied. Now, what is the Reduction In Motion business model?

KH: Good question. We call ourselves “waste-based sustainability consultants” and we mostly work on a monthly fee basis. Recently, a project-specific model has become popular. We show cost savings to our clients by increasing the amount of waste that goes to recycling and composting and cutting the amount that goes to trash, because sending waste to landfills is more expensive. Our metrics for success are diversion rates and money saved. But things have gotten much more challenging recently.

GSB: Why is that?

KH: Recycling just became infinitely more difficult because China — where the US and many other countries sent most of its recycled material — enacted a new law, banning the import of American recycling because there was too much contamination.

GSB: I heard something about that. How much contamination is too much?

KH: It needs to be less than 0.5 percent but the US was sending recycling to China with contamination rates north of 15 percent. That’s one big reason why we emphasize examining waste streams at the client site to make sure they’re not contaminated.

GSB: So where’s the recycling going to go if not China? Can we keep it here?

KH: Great question. The domestic recycling infrastructure needed to support the recovery of the materials we were previously sending to China needs to be greatly expanded if we are going to keep it all here. To truly fix the issues the recycling industry is facing today, manufacturers need to get involved. How2Recycle.info is a great website that explains not only the confusion consumers are facing when trying to recycle but it also addresses how to solve the problem. We need standardized, clear, concise messaging included on the products we buy every day. All packages should be labeled so the consumer can quickly and easily determine how to dispose of everything the package contains the right way. Think of a box of cereal. There is the outer box and the inner bag containing the cereal. Most consumers are well aware that the outer box can be recycled but get confused when it comes to the inner bag. They think, “it’s plastic so it can go into the recycle bin too,” but that’s just not the case. This could be solved if a label was printed on the outside of the box in an easily viewable spot, clearly explaining that the box is recyclable but the plastic bag is not. Standardization of information labels on packaging materials will do a great deal to cut down on contamination rates found in today’s recycling stream. Once the disposal of packaging materials has been standardized, the materials recovery facilities (MRFs) can get to work on how best to recover the materials here in the US, increasing jobs and eliminating the need to export recycled material out of the country.

GSB: We should do a separate interview about what needs to happen to build domestic recycling infrastructure. But for now, let’s talk about how Reduction In Motion got into working with sports venues…

KH: Sports venues are different than hospitals. Hospitals run and generate waste 24-7. Sports fans are at a venue for a few hours and not every day. But when they do go to a game, they generate huge amounts of waste in a relatively short time. Our first sports clients were two two minor league baseball teams in Maryland, Aberdeen IronBirds, who play at Ripken Stadium and the Frederick Keys, whose home base is Harry Grove Stadium. We received a grant from the state to conduct waste audits for them. From there, we moved up to the big leagues as we started to work with the Maryland Stadium Authority. It operates Camden Yards, the home of the Orioles, and M&T Bank Stadium, home of the Ravens.

 

RIM Minor League Baseball

Reduction In Motion team members and volunteers sort trash and recycling generated at a Frederick Keys game at Harry Grove Stadium as part of a grant-funded project by Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) in 2015 (Photo credit: Reduction In Motion)

 

GSB: What do you do for them?

KH: We conducted waste audits as part of both stadiums’ LEED certification efforts, including identifying all the waste that’s generated, from plastic to metal to glass to compostables and more. That led to us working with the Stadium Authority to help the venues understand and improve their diversion rates. We developed fan and staff education content about which types of waste goes into what bin.

GSB: I know there are studies saying that fans care about the environment but do they really care about putting the right type of waste into the right bin?

KH: Some do but some don’t. That’s why it’s so important to establish and roll out a plan, then continue to engage with the key stakeholders, like leadership, operations teams and the fans. By focusing on bin selection, placement, color-codes, and messaging, we try to make it as easy as possible for fans to do the right thing. This approach allowed us to help the University of Richmond with their 2017 ‘Rethink Waste’ basketball game: Recycling contamination was reduced by 54 percent from their baseline and compost was collected at a 93 percent compliance rate! For more details on how we did it, you can read the full story here.

GSB: …So that’s where talking trash comes in!

KH: …You got it! The truth is it’s easier to do the right thing if we make it easy.

GSB: So true. How are Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium doing, diversion rate-wise?

KH: Both have improved over the past several years. Camden Yards’ diversion rate increased from 10 percent in 2012 to 30 percent in 2017. M&T Bank Stadium is doing great; in 2017 they were up to a 58 percent diversion rate, an increase of 40 percent since 2011! Similarly, we’ve had good success in the college sports world. We helped the University of Richmond achieve an 87 percent landfill diversion rate at the aforementioned ‘Rethink Waste’ basketball game.

 

UR (2) RIM

Reduction In Motion and University of Richmond’s student volunteers conducting waste audits during a 2017 Spiders men’s basketball game (Photo credit: Reduction In Motion)

 

GSB: WOW! Congratulations. You make this sound easy but I know it isn’t. What factors might hold down a sports venue’s diversion rate?

KH: Buy-in and consistency. Ensuring you have an understanding of the operations while getting leadership’s understanding and approval can be a tricky balance, and that’s where we come in. Recycling seems easy, but achieving a high, uncontaminated diversion rate will take time and energy. And it takes even more time and energy to maintain and further improve your diversion rates. Things are always changing, whether it be the workforce, those in leadership roles, and, as seen in the China case, the rules of recycling.

GSB: Stadium workers have tough jobs so the communications have to be powerful and the incentives need to be real for them to consistently do the right thing regarding waste. Is sports a growing sector for Reduction In Motion?

KH: It is. More and more, pro and college teams and venues are embracing sustainability — we saw that phenomenon in person at the Green Sports Alliance Summit in Atlanta last month. We also see that fan engagement on recycling and other environmental initiatives is on the rise.

GSB: Hallelujah!!

KH: Definitely! In fact we are providing guidance and ideas to the Maryland Stadium Authority on fan engagement.

GSB: That’s great to hear, Kelsey. Congratulations on your and Reduction In Motion’s success to date. I look forward to hearing about how you and the company will go beyond Maryland’s borders to talk trash and thus help green more sports venues.

 


 

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