A Green Football Giant Helps Kids Save the World

On a cool fall weekend, Atlanta Falcons fullback Ovie Mughelli opened the passenger door and swung his tree trunk-sized leg out of his car, exposing his six-foot-two, 250-pound frame--a Paul Bunyanesque physique that’s bowled over bigger men. Ovie’s leg was encased in a massive black aluminum brace, a painful reminder of a season-ending knee injury against the Detroit Lions. He grimaced as he pulled himself to his feet while his two-year old daughter Olivia bounced in her car seat.

A goal post-sized smile quickly crossed Ovie’s face as he grabbed his Atlanta Falcons cap and peered into a parking lot where a group of Emery University college students gathered to greet him. They’d been there for several hours collecting old batteries, books, bicycles, even prescription drugs, which they separated into piles on the pavement. “How’s everyone doing?,” he asked. His smile grew larger as they surrounded him like Lilliputians eager to get a closer look at the warrior giant who had landed in their midst.

But this was not some idle fan club meet. These students and  organizers had come to the Atlanta Civic Center parking lot to start a new recycling drive, an event called the Atlanta Kids Recycle Day organized by Live Thrive and the Little Green Path Foundation.  And this football player was the perfect ambassador for this event.

Over the past three years, his Ovie Mughelli Foundation has focused on educating youth—particularly disadvantaged youth—about the benefits of going green and supporting environmental issues. There’s no more important cause, Ovie says. “Why would a 250-pound fullback be worried about the environment? Well why haven’t more  people been talking about it. It’s a cliché, but when you look at a child like mine you want to give them the best future you can. And one of the biggest things that affects their lives is the environment. The earth, the water, the air they breathe, there’s nothing more important.”

Watch Ovie explain why he started his environmental foundation.

Ovie is not the only one in the family devoted to the cause. His wife Masika is an equal partner in his foundation efforts. Masika says she learned the importance of environmental issues as a former resident of California, a state famous for pushing the boundaries of all things green. “One of our biggest concerns is helping kids who don’t grow up with people around them who help them learn about these issues,” Masika says. “It’s about giving these kids another way out, about finding something else than just playing sports or getting involved in drug dealing that surrounds them. Once you explain the benefits of green technology, that it can be the next dot com, then they get it. Kids are a lot smarter than you think.”

Ovie first got interested in environmental causes after meeting Laura Turner Sydel, Ted Turner’s daughter and chair of the Captain Planet Foundation that promotes green projects for school children. But Ovie and Masika have quickly grown their operation to include other activities; football camps that stress environmental awareness for underprivileged kids, a Green Speaker series so kids can meet with clean tech business owners and learn how to put green in their pockets; recycling efforts with Atlanta Falcon’s management to increase green activities at the stadium and locker rooms.

Ovie Mughelli at the Kids Recylce Day event         Photos: Rocky Kistner/NRDC

It’s a journey with no end, says Ovie, who’s met Al Gore and many leaders of the environmental movement.  But one trip last year really stood out for him when he traveled to the Gulf to witness the worst oil spill in the nation’s history.

“It was a mind-blowing experience,” Ovie says, shifting his crutches and flexing his powerful biceps. “Seeing what happened to the fishermen, the oil in the marsh and the gravity of the environmental impacts was much more real….this is not the first time it will happen. The media has gone but it will be a life-long issue for these people. We need to work hard to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It really hurt my heart.”

But while environmental disasters like these are tragic, it takes a lot more to break a running back’s heart. Ovie has listened to a stadium full of stories by kids filled with hope, inspirational tales by youths like Maya Penn, an 11-year-old environmental devotee who came to the Atlanta recycling event earlier in the day. Maya came to talk to the event coordinators for her blog that she will link to her blog and to other environmental advocates, including Hollywood actor and environmentalist Ian Somerhalder. She is clearly one of children that will make a difference in our future.

But there are so many other kids who have yet to hear the message that going green is not just cool, but crucial. There are millions of smart, talented kids just waiting to use their imaginations to create new opportunities in the exploding green industry world, Ovie says; “I like to tell all the boys and girls, every single job can be turned green. You just need to be the inventor.”

Ovie, Masika and daughter Olivia Mughelli             Photo: Rocky Kistner/NRDC

So, as Congressional leaders are stuck in political gridlock debating climate change and coal-fired power plants, an all-pro fullback is already spreading the gospel of the environment, hoping that children hear his message and help future generations deal with an increasingly resource-threatened world.

No one knows which child will become the next green tech guru, the next Steve Jobs of the clean energy world. But it just may come from the inspiration of a 250-pound running back, a dedicated father who is taking kids on an environmental journey to places that football alone never could.

For more information about athletes involved in environmental causes and ways you can make a difference check out NRDC's Smarter Business: Greening the Games.