STATESBORO, Ga. (WSAV) — For retired NFL athlete turned environmental advocate Ovie Mughelli, becoming concerned about the fate and health of the planet was a no-brainer.
“For me, it’s easy,” he told Georgia Southern University students on Tuesday at the Statesboro campus. “My babies, my kids.”
The former Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens fullback was there to speak to the students as part of the university’s Sustainability Seminar Series.
The focus Tuesday evening was “empowering the next generation through greening sports,” which has become Mughelli’s goal.
“It’s this mission of mine that I want to be a mission of yours,” he told the students.
During his time with the Falcons, the Charleston, South Carolina native began thinking about how the environment impacts everyone, especially his two infant children fighting for their lives in the NICU.
“I was at a point where I could pretty much do anything, except for the most important thing,” Mughelli shared with the audience. “They couldn’t come out [of the hospital] because of the air quality in Atlanta at the time.”
Following that experience and learning more about the climate crisis, Mughelli says he dove into the environmental movement using his love of sports to reach others — something he says hadn’t really been done by any other professional football athlete.
“I’m the first NFL player in the history of the game to have a focus in the environmental space and to have an environmental foundation,” he said.
“There are a lot of players who are passionate about a lot of things, people who love to get involved in the cancer movement, people who are involved in education, some are involved in homelessness, but for what reason would they skip over the environment, time and time again?” he asked.
Mughelli said it just came down to a lack of knowledge, but he’s been working to change that —particularly with the younger generation.
“I realized that if you love sports, you’ve got to love the environment, the clean air and clean water necessary to play sports, and to play these games we love should make you want to fight for our planet,” Mughelli told WSAV.com NOW.
The motivational speaker told the students a little about the Ovie Mughelli Foundation, which he started with the goal of educating and empowering the next generation of green leaders.
Through the foundation, he says he’s working to diversify the green industry and give equal access to all the benefits green spaces provide.
“I did football camps in my hometown, and I’d have young kids who’d come up to me who knew nothing about anything on the environmental side,” Mughelli said.
“They didn’t know what a carbon footprint was, they didn’t really understand the concept of recycling, composting was a foreign concept to them and they definitely didn’t know anything about environmental justice,” he said.
“But they did know that their sister had asthma, they did know that they were always coughing and hacking and sneezing every time they left their apartment complex, they did know that there were no trees in the area they were in—urban food deserts and an urban heat zone,” he said. “And they literally thought all this was normal.”
He noted that because these children came from low-income families in underserved areas, they couldn’t just pick up and move if a flood, hurricane or other natural disaster struck.
It’s why at these football camps, instead of football and life skills, Mughelli says he focused on football and environment skills, “which really are life skills.”
One of the ways he’s aimed to reach children is through his comic book character, Gridiron Green.
“Kids love Gridiron Green,” Mughelli told WSAV.com NOW. “It’s kind of like the kid in all of us. We all want to be Batman, Spiderman, Superman, we want to just feel like we can do anything, and we take that concept and put it into the environmental space and tell kids that, ‘hey, you can do anything, you don’t need powers to be superheroes for the environment.’”
The ultimate goal, Mughelli says, is to leave a legacy that will allow kids to have better futures and let them know that they can play a key role in saving the planet through learning about healthy environmental practices.
“My hope is that the students really understood that it’s bigger than just them, but more importantly, the next generation and their loved ones,” Mughelli said. “It’s about understanding what’s going on with our environment so that when you know better, you can do better.”