MERIDEN, CONNECTICUT (Meriden Record-Journal) - Thirty National Football League players have converged on Wallingford as part of the 19th annual NFL Players and United Way Weekend, which kicked off Friday night with a dinner and auction.
For the second straight year, the dinner was sold out as over 350 football fanatics filled Zandri’s Stillwood Inn.
The auction featured pro football and baseball ticket packages, autographed memorabilia from the likes of Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez, Maurice Jones-Drew and Bill Belichick and a South Africa safari for two.
The main goal was to raise funds for the United Way and to allow fans of all ages to rub elbows with NFL players, said James Ieronimo, executive director of the United Way of Meriden and Wallingford.
“This is the 19th time it’s happened and the fourth time we’ve done it in Meriden-Wallingford,” Ieronimo said. “It gives the players a chance to show a really human side. I always say these football players are big but they are very user friendly. They’re probably better with the kids than they are with us adults. Our kids come away from this with an experience they won’t forget.”
Over 20 NFL players attended Friday’s banquet, with the remainder of players expected to arrive for today’s youth football clinic at Choate and tonight’s “Bowl with the Pros” evening at Colony Lanes.
“You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a guy who weighs 370 pounds try to aim a bowling ball,” Ieronimo joked.
NFL agent Joe Linta, a Yale graduate, represented almost every player on hand Friday night.
“The fact that the players come here and give up their own time to help the United Way out is amazing,” Linta said. “It speaks to the kind of people that they are. They really have a good time. We make it fun for them.”
Shane Bannon, one of three Kansas City Chiefs to participate, didn’t have far to travel. The fullback out of Pomperaug-Southbury and Yale was the first player to arrive.
“I’m a Connecticut kid,” Bannon said. “It’s my pleasure to give back to the community in any way possible. We’re raising money but, for me, seeing the kids smiling and having fun at (today’s) youth clinic is the best part, for sure.”
While no members of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants attended Friday’s event, the New York Jets and New England Patriots both had representatives. It was hard to miss 6-foot-5, 325-pound Jets offensive lineman Vladimir Ducasse.
“This is my third year coming here,” Ducasse said. “You see familiar faces and hanging out with the kids is fun. When I was younger, I never got the chance to meet an NFL player. I’m trying to give back.”
The former Stamford High School and UMass standout appeared in 16 games for coach Rex Ryan last season.
“With the Giants being the Super Bowl champs, we’re going into this year as the underdogs,” said Ducasse, adding that Ryan will have the Jets ready next season. “They’ve set the bar high and we’ve got to after them and take it away from them. I love playing for Rex Ryan. I haven’t met one single person who doesn’t like playing for Rex.”
New England Patriots center Nick McDonald was another fan favorite Friday night. McDonald’s mother died of cancer when he was 14 and his father later left him and his three siblings. He wasn’t drafted out of Division II Grand Valley State, but made the Green Bay Packers as a free agent before landing with the Pats.
McDonald started one game for New England last season, snapping the football to Brady in a 31-24 win over Indianapolis on Dec. 4.
“It was a great experience,” McDonald said. “It was a long season. We had our ups and downs, but we finished pretty good. It’s unfortunate we didn’t win the Super Bowl. I would have loved to win, but I think we had a good year and we have a lot to build on from it. I think anybody would love to play for the Patriots. It’s a special organization.”
The same can be said about the United Way.
“It helps out a lot of people,” McDonald said. “It’s great for the kids to get to hang out with us. This is a really good event.”
Copyright 2016 Meriden Record-Journal
Updated 1598 days ago Article ID# 1494031