Together Equality— Bigger than Football.

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Together Equality— Bigger than Football.

Georgia offensive lineman Trey Hill (55), offensive lineman Ben Cleveland (74), Coach Kirby Smart, defensive back Richard LeCounte (2), and defensive back Eric Stokes (27) stand together before the Bulldogs’ game with Arkansas in Fayetteville, Ark., on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020. (Photo by Kevin Snyder)

You may have heard about the team meeting back on Thursday, August 27. The night before, one by one, different members of the UGA football team began to approach Coach Smart about the hurt they personally felt regarding the social injustice facing our nation and world. One by one, players voiced their concerns and the need to talk about it as a team due to how closely it affected a large majority of them. Coach Smart and the rest of the football coaching staff agreed— it was necessary to approach the injustice head on … not only was it necessary but also it was time. Practice was cancelled that Thursday; team meetings were scheduled in its place.

What came out of those hard, honest conversations? Not just ideas. Not just stories. Not just common ground. A plan. An authentic, action-oriented plan was created to solve problems in response to the social injustice prevalent in our society and nation. Not just a plan but a plan that created a wave of support, Bulldog Nation coming together yet again as a team. A few headlines read:

  • “Stafford, Smart Endow New Social Justice Program for UGA Athletics”
  • “UGAAA Forms Strategic Alliance With Todd Gurley”
  • “‘Dawgs For Pups’ Initiative Kicks Off To Help Area Students”
  • “Second ‘Dawgs For Pups’ Initiative Begins with Food2Kids Snack Drive”

UGA Athletics created a new social justice program with the purpose to continue developing an environment to effect change, pushing for diversity and inclusion. Former standout UGA quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who now plays for the Detroit Lions, and his wife made a donation of $1.5 million to the University, part of it going directly toward the social justice program. Joining the Stafford family are Kirby and Mary Beth Smart, who donated $1 million to fund the new social justice program and other University initiatives. Of the donation Kirby said, “the current moment presents unique challenges for all of us, whether that’s dealing with the ramifications of this pandemic or acknowledging and addressing racial inequality. We hope this gift can fuel positive change in both areas.” This was just the start of the grassroots movement for changing the state of our local community, University and nation.

Atlanta Falcons running back and former Bulldog Todd Gurley is using his platform to support multiple UGA initiatives, one where he will serve as a mentor and featured speaker for student-athletes on topics such as social justice, creating value beyond sport, financial literacy and entrepreneurship. Gurley’s foundation, Make A Difference Every Day (M.A.D.E.) will participate in the “Dawgs for Pups” campaign started by the UGA Football team.

In light of the meetings that Thursday and recent conversations, the UGA Football players came up with the strategic campaign previously mentioned, “Dawgs for Pups”— their way to take action in the community to provide opportunities to low income students affected by COVID-19. The campaign will take on many initiatives over the coming months. Part one supplies WiFi hotspots to families who have kindergarten to eighth grade students in Clarke County School District. The donations will help support the more than 1,000 families in Clarke County who do not have Internet access needed for online learning. For only $20, donors can sponsor a family’s unlimited high-speed date plan for a month. For $60, donors can sponsor a family’s WiFi for the fall semester.

“Helping out the youth in this area is so important because they are our future,” said senior defensive back Eric Stokes. “I have a platform (at the University of Georgia) and I am trying to use that platform and make it as big as it can go. And I want to try and use that platform to help out younger kids where they can get to the place where I am or pass where I am now.”

Part two is the Food2Kids Snack Drive where players are taking non-perishable food donations to package and gift backpacks of food to students in the community who don’t have access to food every meal at home.

“I’ve been giving back to my community as far as I can remember,” said sophomore linebacker Nakobe Dean. “Doing projects like this makes me feel like I am kind of continuing that tradition that we did with my mom growing up. It’s important to help the youth at all times, not just right now in times of despair but all the time since they are the future of our country.”

“Dawgs for Pups” has also become a near and dear cause to a group of local Athens, Georgia retirees who meet weekly as the “Leadership Group” to discuss and support Georgia sports. When introduced to the campaign, the group was particularly drawn to how these students created solutions to immediate issues facing our community. Five Points resident and member of the Leadership Group Carl Parks said, “(My wife) and I and our members were particularly intrigued by ‘Dawgs for Pups’ because the cause of supporting our local school kids during this challenging time is so, so critically needed, and we all are impressed that it was initiated by our UGA student-athletes themselves. The video of players out buying food for kids and using their platform as prominent student-athletes to raise funds for such a worthy cause is something we want to encourage, support and encourage others to support.” Both Carl and his wife Barb are invested in the Clarke County School District— Carl having served on the Board and Barb serving on the Clarke County Mentor Program Board. In light of the group’s gratitude for the student-athletes’ leadership, the group has 100% participation in giving to the “Dawgs for Pups” initiative. “It’s not a one-time thing for them or us, so we’re committed to doing what we can to make it successful,” Carl shared.

These aren’t the only stories of others working together to make a difference. It’s clear here— when one voice speaks up for the good of others, many join in. The courage displayed by the football team is remarkable … note-worthy even, and it’s providing opportunities for thousands of students and also inspiring others to do the same.

Bigger than football, these players are humans. More than their talents, these players come to the table with hurt and pain, ways they have been treated unfairly and poorly merely because of their skin color. They also come to the table with a heart that is empathetic, a heart that wants to take action to make the world a better place— for themselves, their teammates, the Black community and the world. In true team fashion, they need your support, the same support you tirelessly show game after game to cheer them on to a win. How can you help? Visit http://gado.gs/53q to make a donation or mail a check to: Athens Area Community Foundation (CCSD in the memo line), PO Box 1543, Athens, Georgia 30603. You can also drop food donations on the main floor (third floor) of the UGA Athletic Association’s Butts-Mehre Building or at The Food Bank of Northeast Georgia.

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Becca graduated from the University of Georgia in 2019; she majored in Consumer Journalism with a certificate in Entrepreneurship and Personal & Organizational Leadership. Her passion lies in connecting with others to help them fulfill their greatest potential. At UGA, she spent her time investing in Cru, an on-campus ministry, and her sorority, Chi Omega, and worked on different areas of campus throughout her time, including the Sports Communications department. Her work with Bulldawg Illustrated covers content creation and promotion to ideas and interns. Ways she finds joy? People, power walks, calling old friends for a catch-up, sand between her toes, and ideas— no matter how scary they may be. Calling Columbus, GA home but born and raised in South Mississippi, she love places and people that feel like home and believes there’s nothing sweeter than making other people feel the same way.