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All Smiles at United Way of New York City’s Annual Gridiron Gala 2019

Literally, smiles everywhere.

That’s what I would tell you if you had asked me to describe the 26th Annual Gridiron Gala in one sentence.

What brought us to the New York Hilton Midtown this past Tuesday evening? Support. Support for the United Way of New York City (UWNYC). Support for the athletes, executives, and VIPs that were honored and celebrated. Support for the more than 40-year relationship the New York Giants and the New York Jets have had, and continue to have, with the UWNYC.

The UWNYC has a mission; how do they make New York City work for EVERY New Yorker? They work in the poorest communities helping families and children keep their bellies full, a roof over their heads, and a bright eye for the future. They break down barriers and provide much needed resources. Needless to say, this organization should be celebrated daily for all that they do.

Each year the UWNYC honors two players that exemplify the NFL’s commitment to its community as well as corporate leaders who go above and beyond to give back to New York City. This year’s MVP is Stephen J. Dannhauser, Former Chairman of Weil, Gotshal, & Manges, LLP. The Community Quarterback honorees are George Brooks, President of the American Region, UPS; Donald Hong, Chairman & President, UA3; and Laurie Mahon, Vice Chair, US Investment Banking, Global Investment Banking, CIBC Capital Markets. This brings us to the last two honored, the Hometown Heroes. Michael Thomas, Safety for the New York Giants and Avery Williamson, Linebacker for the New York Jets. Both these men have just completed their first full season on their respective teams, and, they are making a huge impact on and off the field.

Avery Williamson, Sheena Wright – UWNYC President, Michael Thomas
(Photo By Peter Scarpaci)

Michael Thomas is no stranger to charitable efforts. He has his annual camp, Camp Mike T, back in Houston. He has his Dream Builders Foundation. He is working with the United Way and the NFL’s digital learning initiative called the Character Playbook. “To be the honoree for the New York Giants, to represent them and partnering with the United Way, is humbling for me” Thomas said. “We care. It’s not just about wanting our friends to come and support us. We’re really out in the community. We really care about you all. We care about your education. We care about how you can further yourself not just in school, but life in general.”

With a new Bachelor degree in tow, Avery Williamson feels grateful and blessed to play in New York with the Jets and to have a platform where he can make a difference in the community. “Kids can get strayed and go in the wrong direction when they don’t have the necessities education wise or motivation wise in their homes. If I can be of assistance speaking to kids, whether it’s providing a tutor, or food, or anything. Children are a great motivator. You never know how bad a kid has it. So, if I can be a blessing to a child, and help their future, that will make me feel amazing.”

Yes, they play in the National Football League, and yes, there’s an undeniable passion for giving back in both these stars. But where did that passion come from? Thomas and Williamson both brought it back to their families, back to their roots, where their giving souls grew.

“I truly and genuinely have a passion about giving back to my communities” Thomas said. “We were always giving back even when we didn’t have too much to give. I am in a position right now where people are willing to listen. I have a voice and I have a platform, I just want to use it.” For Williamson, the more he does, the more he wants to do. That character was built as he grew up as well, and it’s serving him well here in NYC. “It’s awesome being nominated, and it definitely motivates me to do even more in whatever community, in whatever areas that need help,” he said.

Joe Namath and Sheena Wright – UWNYC President
(Photo By Peter Scarpaci)

The night wouldn’t be complete if it wasn’t for all the current and former teammates of our Hometown Heroes in attendance. New York Jets great Joe Namath; current Jets Kelechi Osemele and Anthony Wint; former Jet Erik Coleman; New York Giants great Rashad Jennings; current Giants in Kyle Lauletta and Scott Simonson; and former Giant Chris Canty to name just a few attendees.

Canty who is now host of the mid-morning ESPN radio show Humpty & Canty and a Bronx, NY native knows about charitable work and its importance. He is the founder of the Chris Canty Foundation, which has been successful in changing the lives of children through the sports platform since its inception in 2009. “We have a responsibility with the platform to give back to our community. The United Way has done some tremendous work. Specifically the work that they have done in the South Bronx, I am a Bronx kids born and raised. It means a lot to support an organization that does a lot to support the community that I come from. It’s an honor and a privilege to be here tonight.”

Money was raised, autographs were signed, drinks were sipped, fun was had, and lives are being changed every day from the efforts of the athletes and executives in our city coupled with the amazing organization that is the United Way of New York City.

On a football note, with the NFL Draft behind us now, our New York teams have hopefully (fingers crossed) filled some roster holes and are ready to make the push into the 2019-2020 NFL season. With optional training days, rookie mini camps, training camp, UFAs, and more ahead of us, the fun is only getting started!

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Jackie Daly

Jackie Daly has been with In The Zone since 2012. Her contributions have been mostly in NHL and special events coverage. Jackie has been a writer, video host, and podcast host with ITZ. She currently co-hosts Tea Time with Mel and Jay. Outside ITZ, Jackie works with MLS's New York City Football Club and the AHL's Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
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