Five years ago, the CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving spoke at the NFL owners meeting about their partnership with the league, including how some teams were working with local MADD volunteers on programs.
The Atlanta Falcons weren’t one of those teams, a fact that didn’t sit particularly well with owner Arthur Blank or his future wife.
“I talked to Arthur that day at lunch about getting the Falcons involved,” recalled Angela Blank, who married the Falcons owner and Home Depot co-founder in 2016, after a two-year engagement. His response: If she was interested, “You can take that on.”
In football terms, it was pretty much the equivalent of tossing Julio Jones the ball and saying, “Run with it.” Out of that meeting, a strong partnership has developed between the Falcons and MADD Georgia that’s unique and seemingly unyielding in its quest to eliminate drunken driving.
And a key to it all, many people say, is “Angie” Blank’s passion.
Demetria Gholston (middle, red headband) and other participants in 2016’s Walk Like MADD, which finished at the Georgia Dome. This was the first time MADD Georgia and the Atlanta Falcons combined their walk/5K run events, and some of the other women in the photo were Falcons fans who volunteered to carry photos of Gholston’s son, Josh D. Keith, a drunken driving victim, during the event. CONTRIBUTED BY MADD GEORGIA
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“No question about it, she’s been absolutely instrumental,” said Adolpho A. Birch III, a top NFL executive who’ll be here for Saturday’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium 5K/Walk Like MADD, which Blank is co-chairing with another powerhouse MADD Georgia volunteer, Amy Sands. “From the day she came on the scene, this has been of great interest to her.”
In a way, it’s personal.
“Alcoholism has been a big factor in my life,” Blank, 49, explained over lunch at a Midtown restaurant recently. “Both my father and my ex-husband passed away at the age of 47, both of them from alcoholism.”
Still, who knew that “You can take that on” would turn into all this? A turbo-charged version of the annual event MADD Georgia has put on for about a decade, Saturday’s 5K/Walk kicks off at Falcons Landing, then winds through downtown before finishing up on the 50-yard line of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. When participants enter the spectacular new home of the Falcons and Atlanta United, they’ll see themselves on the eye-popping Halo Board, no doubt setting off some serious Selfie Frenzy.
Atlanta, GA - Watched carefully by Freddie Falcon, Arthur Blank cuts the ribbon for the Falcons opener at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Gov. Nathan Deal on Sept. 17. The 50-yard line is where participants in Saturday’s 5K/Walk Like MADD event will finish. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andresemail@example.com
“When they go all in, they go all in,” Sands, whose son, Tyler, was killed by a drunken driver in 2012, said of the Falcons and their other partners in the event.
Online registration remains open through Tuesday, with all of the proceeds going to MADD Georgia. Some 80 Walk Like MADD fundraisers take place around the country each year. But those events generally pull in $65,000 to $70,000 apiece, while the overall fundraising goal in Atlanta this year is a whopping $300,000. But then, this is the only MADD walk being put on in conjunction with the Falcons, Atlanta United and the Atlanta Track Club — and to take full advantage of those organizations’ marketing savvy and organizational firepower.
As of Monday morning, registration had reached just over 7,200, no doubt thanks in part to the sign-up links prominently featured on the teams’ websites and the email blasts that have gone out to season ticket holders. It’s gotten so big that MARTA will start running at 4 a.m. Saturday to help people get to the event.
That’s nearly twice the number of people who took part last year, when Walk Like MADD and the popular Rise Up and Run 5K put on by the Falcons and the Atlanta Track Club combined for the first time. That race, which finished up inside the Georgia Dome, was record-setting in its own right: It had the highest participation and sponsorship totals of any single event in Texas-based MADD’s then 36-year history.
“It was incredible, and this year’s event will exceed that,” predicted Debbie Weir, MADD’s CEO, who’ll be here for Saturday’s race and then stick around for Sunday’s Falcons-Bills game. She’ll volunteer at the MADD Designated Driver booth that’s a permanent fixture now at all Falcons and Atlanta United home games at Mercedes-Benz.
Related video: Inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Time lapse of Mercedes-Benz Stadium before opening game against Arizona Cardinals.
Birch will be here on Saturday, too. Sands says she and Angie Blank previously met with the NFL’s Senior Vice President of Labor Policy & League Affairs, who’s intrigued by what’s happening in Atlanta and the possibility of replicating it in other NFL cities.
“The relationship the Falcons have developed with MADD is really influential,” Birch said in an interview. “It’s looking at how could we leverage that and spread it through other clubs.”
They might want to try cloning Angie Blank and Amy Sands for starters. The two met in 2013 at a MADD Georgia program for teens. Blank had brought her teenage son and daughter from an earlier marriage and Alpharetta resident Sands was there with her two daughters (Tyler’s younger sisters have spoken at the Falcons’ rookie camp about drunken driving’s devastating impact on lives).
They bonded as mothers and MADD advocates and by 2015, found themselves co-chairing Walk Like MADD for the first time (they’re now in their third year).
The night before the walk at Kennesaw State University, Sands says she and Blank filled “three huge carts” at Costco with items like course flags, and candy for the 300 kids they were bringing in from after-school programs, then were still at it at 4 a.m. doing setup and other tasks. The Falcons, who’d provided financial support for that year’s event, decided they wanted to do even more.
Angie Blank says it was team president Rich McKay who came up with the idea of combining their two races, and that everything has grown from there.
But Sands knows where it all began.
“It’s because of the passion that Angie has for this issue,” Sands said of the woman who’s become her close friend. “I think that when Angie got involved and (the Falcons) saw that this was what she wanted to put her considerable time and effort behind, they said, ‘How can we help you?’”