NFL players come to Meriden to help boost local United Way

July 22, 2022
Posted in News
July 22, 2022 Seth Karlin

MERIDEN — In March 2020, the United Way NFL Players’ Live Auction & Dinner Buffet held its 27th annual event, and three days later the lockdowns started for COVID-19.

There was no banquet in 2021, but it returned for it’s 28th annual event Friday night at a new venue, Il Monticello in Meriden.

The dinner included 250 NFL fans who had the chance to mingle with some pros and also were bidding on sports memorabilia with all proceeds going to the United Way of Meriden and Wallingford.

Maria Campos Harlow is the executive director of United Way of Meriden and Wallingford, and she said this fundraiser is vital for the organization.

“It’s an integral part of our fundraising,” Campos Harlow said. “In 2020, we had close to 400 people at our event, and the following Tuesday everything was shut down. It’s incredible how much the world has changed and how much has happened since the shutdown. We’ve been in crisis mode and supporting people who have struggled so much. This is an important opportunity to help people with their most basic needs.”

Each year NFL agent Joe Linta, the president of JL Sports, brings in players he represents and they serve as the stars of the night.

The NFL players scheduled to be in attendance at the silent action/dinner were: Jaivon Heiligh (Cincinnati Bengals, WR), Tyler Coyle (Dallas Cowboys, S), Julius Chestnut (Tennessee Titans, RB), John Lovett (Miami Dolphins, RB), Jack Stoll (Philadelphia Eagles, TE), Montrell Washington (Denver Broncos WR/KR), Tuzar Skipper (Pittsburgh Steelers LB), Jacobi Francis (Houston Texans, CB), Josh Onujiogu (Seattle Seahawks, DE) and David Spitz (Harvard, DB).

Skipper was a former Meriden resident and went on to star at Norwich Free Academy. He was honored at the event as the NFL United Way 2022 Player of the Year. He gave a heartfelt speech at the event after being being escorted to the microphone by the Mariachis from the Spanish Community of Wallingford.

“Growing up, there were times when I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from,” Skipper said. “Those are things a person shouldn’t have to think about. But those experiences shaped me into the person I’ve become and now I’m in the position to help others. I’m grateful for the opportunity.”

Linta said he was happy to honor Skipper.

“Every year we honor someone who gives back,” Linta said. “Someone who gives his time and effort to charity with their own time, and Tuzar does that.”

“It’s an award that I’m proud of for giving back to the community,” Skipper said. “I’m so grateful and honored for it. Being a part of this event means a lot. I love being a part of it. I love working with the kids at the clinic.”

Skipper said he’s excited to get to work again with the Steelers.

“I just want to put my head down and get to work. I’m going to have a head full of steam and show everyone that I still got it,” Skipper said. “Every day I get up I’m just working on my craft.”

Skipper, a linebacker, spent part of his youth in Meriden and launched his high school career at Maloney. He played his final two years of high school football at Norwich Free Academy and his college football at Toledo, and then was signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted free agent in 2019. He’s back with the Steelers after stops with the Tennessee Titans, New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons.

“I’m looking forward to staying on a team and calling that fan base my home,” Skipper said. “It takes a toll to bounce around, but at the end of the day it doesn’t take away from the grind. But I’m extremely excited to be back with the Steelers.”

Skipper said he’s still in Connecticut a lot but also has a place in Nashville.

Coyle and Chestnut also have state ties. Coyle went to Windsor High and Chestnut played at Sacred Heart University.

Chestnut was a free agent after the 2022 draft and chose the Titans.

“It means a lot to be here and its just a tremendous honor,” Chestnut said. “I would just like to make the team. To be able to play in the NFL is hard and my main goal is to make the team, and I can’t really look past that. I want to make the team and get on the field.”

Chestnut said he loved his time playing with Sacred Heart. The running back ran for nearly 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns during his career as a Pioneer.

“It’s very exciting for so many people who are big NFL fans,” Campos Harlow said. “We have so much memorabilia, and the live action is run by (Fox 61’s) Matt Scott, who does such a great job as our emcee. People love to chat with the players and live in the NFL atmosphere.”

This is the 13th year the United Way of Meriden and Wallingford has benefited from the event. Before July, the event was held at Zandri’s Stillwood Inn in Wallingford for many years. Zandri’s has since closed.

“We made so many memories at Zandri’s but we are excited about having it at Il Monticello — the facilities are beautiful,” Campos Harlow said.

Typically, there’s a Bowling with the Pro’s event that was cancelled this year. Today, the JL Sports Youth Clinic will be held at Hamden Hall. The clinic will benefit the school.

Campos Harlow said the United Way is thankful for this event.

“This has significant importance, and we are focusing on people who are struggling and to get their most basic needs,” Campos Harlow said. “Inflation is high. Gas prices are high and we are motivating people to get better, higher-paying jobs with our workforce initiative. We want to put our resources into getting more people on a path to get them in a better place. We encouraged those attending to give very generously, and we are hoping to raise a good amount of money.”

The national anthem was performed by the Spanish Community of Wallingford School of Music with Yazmin, Alondra and Jenny Lopez.

Campos Harlow said in a typical year, the weekend would bring in a surplus of $50,000 a year to her organization. She added that this year’s event would fall short of that.

Linta said it’s an event he looks forward to every year.

“It’s just a great opportunity to give back, and these guys are willing to give back to the community,” Linta said. “In theory, they all wanted to come, but some guys had different things going on. With the three weeks between summer and the start of camp its tough for some guys. We have 10 guys. In the past we’ve had a bowling tournament. If we sold 25 lanes, we brought in 25 players. But the bowling had to be nixed because we moved the event from March to July.”

Linta said he likes how the United Way of Meriden and Wallingford appreciates every dollar that comes in.

“Even though I don’t live in the area, this community enamored me,” Linta said. “They are all so kind, and it’s a smaller community that really needs the help. We were in bigger towns where we didn’t feel as appreciated. We feel wanted here, and we want to do a good job for them. It’s been a good marriage.”

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