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NFL greats lift grassroots idea

John Colson

Former Denver Bronco Karl Mecklenburg said this weekend that he and other football greats are working to help an Aspen youth advocacy group expand its support base beyond the Roaring Fork Valley.

That effort, Mecklenburg said, will include not only an expansion of the number of teams involved with helping A Grassroots Aspen Experience raise funds, but the establishment of “chapters” in the home cities of some of the participants.

Mecklenburg, along with more than 30 other active and retired football players, was in Aspen last weekend for the third annual First Downhill Celebrity Ski Race.

The race, which is to raise money for A Grassroots Aspen Experience, was started three years ago as a charity program by the National Football League’s Player’s Association.

This year’s event featured a downhill race on the Little Nell slope on Saturday, as well as a silent auction and a live auction at the St. Regis Hotel Saturday night, and other parties and events.

AGAE Executive Director John Reid said he would not know how much money was raised until some time this week.

Mecklenburg, who is the honorary chairman of AGAE’s board, said the First Downhill idea was created after Gene Upshaw, a Hall of Famer from the Oakland Raiders and executive director of the NFLPA, came to Aspen for a vacation during one of the Grassroots Aspen Experience programs.

Those programs bring inner city and other disadvantaged young people to Aspen for a week of fun and confidence-building activities, twice a year. AGAE, which was founded in 1991 by Reid, is a private non-profit organization with a $600,000 annual budget. Reid said the organization has brought close to 3,000 kids to Aspen.

Upshaw met with Reid, Mecklenburg, and “he was so impressed by the program, he thought the NFLPA had to get involved any way it could.”

One result, he said, is that this year, “We had more players that wanted to come than we had room for. What we’re trying to do is invite players active in their own communities.”

The joining of A Grassroots Aspen Experience and the NFLPA, Mecklenburg said, is easily explained.

“The connection is just a natural one, because so many football players come from the same background as these kids,” he said. “Right now, this is one of the (NFLPA’s) main charity pushes.”

Evidence of this “natural” connection, he noted, is the fact that a number of “mentoring relationships” have grown out of it, such as one between Broncos linebacker Anthony Lynn and a boy who has been involved in AGAE.

Asked why he has been so involved with A Grassroots Aspen Experience, Mecklenburg said his father was a doctor and his mother was a deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for a time, and that they instilled in him a social conscience.

“I was raised to believe that what I do for a living should be socially significant,” he said. “Playing football is great, but it’s just entertainment.”

Being involved in A Grassroots Aspen Experience, “means a lot to me,” he said.

He added that along with other Broncos, such as Ed McCaffrey (who was not present this year), the team’s management is supporting AGAE, including team owner Pat Bowlen and his wife, Annabelle.

“They’re committed to the program,” Mecklenburg said. ” … they’re going to stay involved,” he said.

One aspect of the team’s involvement, he said, is by working to establish a chapter of A Grassroots Aspen Experience in Denver.

The purpose of the chapter, he said, will be to broaden the AGAE’s fundraising base, which for six years was limited to the Roaring Fork Valley. Other chapters for other cities are also in the works.

Mecklenburg said the San Francisco 49ers have gotten involved, sponsoring kids from the Bay Area to come to Aspen. And, he said, E.J. Junior, a fullback for the Miami Dolphins, is working on getting his own team involved.


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