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VOL. 42 | NO. 29 | Friday, July 20, 2018

Former Vol OL Munoz now protecting the game he loves

Working for Pro Football Hall of Fame to protect a sport ‘under attack’

By Al Lesar

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Loving football just wasn’t enough. The game didn’t love Michael Munoz back at times. His credentials:

-- Hall of Fame pedigree (his dad Anthony was a standout at USC and with the Cincinnati Bengals)

-- A stature (6-foot-6, 306 pounds in his playing days) to compete

-- A proven winner as an offensive tackle at the University of Tennessee (46 starts in 2000, ’02, ’03 and ’04, the Vols were 36-15 during that stretch)

-- Consensus All-American who did it the right way (3.67 GPA and a degree in political science

-- Draddy Trophy, which honors academics, community service and on-field performance)

Still, when it came time to play the game at the highest level, Munoz was a groom that was left at the altar.

Munoz missed his entire sophomore season at Tennessee (2001) with a knee injury. Despite playing through the pain most of the time, he was pestered by knee and shoulder problems the rest of his career.

“The injuries never put a damper on my time at Tennessee,” Munoz says. “I had an unbelievable experience.”

After college, Munoz attended the NFL Combine before the 2005 draft.

“I spoke to every (offensive line) coach in the league and about 10 general managers,” Munoz recalls. “It was never a question of ‘if’ I was going to be drafted, it was ‘when.’”

But the call never came. The entire draft passed without anyone taking a chance on Munoz’s body holding up.

The game into which he had poured his heart and soul since he was old enough to know the difference between run blocking and pass protection had jilted him.

“I could have signed (as a free agent) with the Bengals, but it didn’t feel right,” he says. “It was time to make a clean break.”

Or so he thought…

Walking away …. sort of

There comes a time in every football player’s life when it’s time to walk away. He learned that when his dad, one of the greatest offensive linemen ever in the NFL, said goodbye after 13 seasons.

Munoz’s goal was that, by the time he was 35, he was able to walk. He’s 36 now and doing just fine.

“The first couple years were hard,” Munoz remembers. “There were teammates in the league who were behind me. I knew I could play. It was still difficult because I loved the game so much.

“I don’t regret any part of the process. I don’t hold any hard feelings against the NFL or the game itself.”

Good thing, because the game is still paying the freight.

Down about 40 pounds from his playing weight, Munoz now has a key role in growing the game. In late April, he was hired full-time by the Pro Football Hall of Fame as vice president of youth football and character development.

Two separate areas that go hand-in-hand.

“Youth football is under attack right now,” Munoz adds. “Football in general has a lot of eyes on the game; there’s a lot of scrutiny on the safety and the benefits of playing. I view that as a huge opportunity to be able to control the narrative.

“Guys who have lived the game have wonderful things to share. One of the responsibilities we have is to give our legends of the game a voice to reach kids, coaches and parents and say, ‘Hey, there’s a risk involved with this game. But let me tell you about all it has to offer in terms of changing my life.’”

After Tennessee, five years in the corporate world netted Munoz an MBA and a desire to go out on his own. One of the clients of a marketing firm he started happened to be the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Since 2011, he has been instrumental in crafting the message about the benefits of the game.

Now, he just happens to do it from an office in Canton.

He doesn’t have to go far for material.

His dad and former coach Tony Dungy were among those instrumental in developing the website www.gameforlife.com. It takes the metaphors and life lessons found in the game and breaks them down for parents and coaches. Soon to come will be materials suitable for consumption by players.

“We’ve developed a ‘cradle to Canton’ philosophy,” says Pete Fierle, chief of staff and vice president of communications for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “In a perfect world, we want to increase participation for anything from flag football to tackle.

“We want to make the Hall of Fame the most inspiring place on Earth.”

Understanding the impact

Just because he had a Hall of Fame father and what could be construed as a pampered path to success, Munoz cannot undersell the impact youth football made on his life.

“The unity and diversity concept of football had a profound impact on my life,” Munoz explains. “There are 11 guys on the field who are completely different from each other. If there were 11 guys who looked like me and were built like me, we would have a terrible team. Guys are bringing completely different skill sets to the field.

“Our unity is rallying around the same goal. We all have to work together to achieve that goal. That’s what I love about football. You can understand what a team really is and to trust one another.

“In the huddle (at Tennessee), I had guys from all over the world, literally. We all had to work together to score.”

“Michael is a believer,” Fierle says. “He believes in our mission. This initiative is more than football. You can change lives through football.”

Dealing with the frustration of a situation that doesn’t go according to plan is another challenge.

“There are 60 or 70 opportunities to succeed or fail (in a game),” Munoz acknowledges. “I learned a lot about failure and how to pick yourself up when things don’t go your way: Put it out of your mind and focus on the next play.

“Life’s going to throw a lot of things at you. You’re going to win, but you’re also going to lose … a lot. How you respond in those moments of adversity shapes you as a person. I love that in football. If you don’t, it’s going to be a very difficult game.”

Watch the head, forget the knee

As an advocate for football, Munoz is completely behind the initiative of Pro Football Hall of Fame partner USA Football. That body has come up with a teaching curriculum for coaches at all levels to combat concussions.

“(Head’s Up Football) is similar to what I was taught years ago,” he adds.

“The foundation is the same. You have to see what you’re going to tackle. When you put your head down for a big collision, you’re in trouble.”

When anyone representing the Pro Football Hall of Fame is out in public, it seems only natural that they would be confronted with opinions concerning the latest controversy to sweep through the NFL: The choice of some players to take a knee during the pre-game playing of the national anthem.

That’s an issue Munoz has no interest in tackling.

“When we are doing an event, whether we have five kids or 5,000 kids, we are always trying to celebrate what is excellent in the sport and what is excellent in our communities,” he says.

“You have a minority of guys who are making a statement for one reason or another. We focus on what is excellent about the game; what are (players) doing in their community to promote educational efforts or to raise funds for cancer research?

“Players that are currently in the game and the legends, the Hall of Famers (182 are living) are involved in the direction of their community. We’re trying to elevate them and to shine a light on the good things they’re doing in their community. We can barely spend the time on the part of the narrative where there’s some negative publicity.”

Measuring the impact

Given such a broad job description and minimal tangible evidence to gauge the success of the program, Munoz has come up with some simple ways to evaluate his progress.

l Is there collaboration by the teams? All 32 NFL franchises have pledged an investment in their communities and have realized that by youth programs.

l Is there sustainability? Many of the teams have events that have been repeated for several years.

l What’s the impact been? Many areas have seen a carryover from school to community service.

“In the character phase, unlike history, math and English, it’s hard at the youth level to understand how someone becomes better at character,” Munoz acknowledges. “We work with a lot of educators and research analysts to find out how we quantify moving the needle within character development.”

The scope of the Hall of Fame’s commitment to growing the game is obvious in the construction of the Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village. With costs estimated at $700 million on up, the plan is for the facilities to make Canton the national – and even international – hub of youth football.

With that goes the opportunity to reach thousands of youngsters every year.

“It’s not just how (the youngsters) recognize character traits,” Munoz points out. “They learn what ‘integrity’ means at the event. We want to encourage community activity. A lot of the programs we’re involved with have a call to action.

“We’re getting these groups in NFL cities deeply tied into non-profit organizations.”

In Munoz’s hometown of Cincinnati, youngsters go through an NFL-sponsored program at their school that leads into a service project in their community.

“Now you’re starting to have these kids getting inspired by the curriculum and inspired by what the game of football has to teach,” he says. “Then going into their community and make an impact.”

It’s amazing what some well-placed love can achieve.

Football is finally returning the favor.

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