Former Ravens fullback Ovie Mughelli refers to himself as a “big kid.”
Holding a deep affection for cartoons and comic books, Mughelli recalled watching episodes of “Captain Planet and the Planeteers,” a 1990s television show that educated children about how to make the earth cleaner.
Mughelli, whose parents are Nigerian, saw himself in one of the show’s protagonists, Kwame, an African child, and was interested in the program’s diverse cast of characters.
Years later, Mughelli took that interest to the United Nations Global Week of Action in New York, where he spoke Wednesday about his journey with environmental justice.
Mughelli’s work is rooted in Atlanta, where he was playing for the Falcons after spending his first four NFL seasons with the Ravens.
A chance encounter turned into a revelation, as Mughelli attended an event hosted by Falcons owner Arthur Blank and met the creator of “Captain Planet,” media tycoon Ted Turner, as well as Turner’s daughter and national environmental advocate Laura Turner Seydel.
A conversation with Seydel refocused Mughelli, who realized his efforts to make a change weren’t adequate.
Mughelli began reading books, attending workshops and speaking to environmental experts. He noticed the industry wasn’t as diverse as the TV show he grew up idolizing and neglected communities of color.
“It motivated me to use my platform of sports to engage those who are unengaged,” Mughelli said. “There are a lot of people who don’t give a darn about the environment, but love sports. In this green game, we need all hands on deck.”
The premature birth of two of Mughelli’s three children fueled his passion even further. He and his wife spent long nights in the hospital watching over his daughter, who underwent blood transfusions and other operations.
Atlanta’s air quality, among the worst in the United States, delayed his daughter’s discharge and relegated her inside for fear of worsening her condition.
“I couldn’t throw money at the air and give my daughter the ability to come home,” Mughelli said. “I couldn’t just fix this with my fame or my celebrity. ... When it affects you personally, that’s when it takes to another level."
Mughelli, 39, “went into overdrive,” seeking to mobilize communities of color. Through his Ovie Mughelli Foundation, he works to perform outreach and inject environmental education into school curriculums.
“There are two groups of people that we really need to engage if we’re going to shift society,” said Nick Keller, founder of social-impact organization Beyond Sport, who interviewed Mughelli at the United Nations General Assembly. “One is youth and the second is corporations. We know both of those groups have influence in very different ways and have a strong connection to sports.
“As we find that there’s less clarity over who to trust and who to look up to in the world, athletes are filling a gap for young people.”
Staying true to his love for comics, Mughelli worked with UNICEF and other nonprofits to publish “Gridiron Green,” a football-themed graphic novel based on Mughelli’s life that promotes environmental education.
His football background has provided numerous avenues to fuse the two sectors, including Green Tailgate, whose mission is to turn tailgates into more eco-friendly areas.
“I had great teachers in halftime motivational speeches,” Mughelli said. “I’ve had some of the greatest, from Ed Reed to Ray Lewis to Deion Sanders, Tony Gonzalez. I heard some of the greatest halftime speeches ever from people who, man, they just got it.
“I always use that when I talk to kids, adults, whatever. I try to make sure they feel the excitement of trying to bring people together and win a game and really tap into that spirit that we all have to succeed and to excel and to, quite frankly, dominate. We need to dominate this issue.”