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This Life with Gracie: A ‘Gridiron Giveback’ to Georgia National Guard members, their families

One Thursday early this month, Susan O’Dwyer arrived at the Kids II showroom in Buckhead, still unsure if Will Bozarth was real and if he was if he would show up.

Tiny glass vials of mustard seeds dangled from her ears because if there was ever a time O’Dwyer needed faith, this was it.

She had recruited 100 people to help her and a dozen or so NFL “legends” color greeting cards and stuff gift bags for the families of some 2,200 Georgia National Guard members being deployed to Afghanistan.

It was close to 7 a.m. when a line of volunteers and local business owners who’d donated their wares for the bags started to trickle in but no Bozarth.

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“The day was either going to be a good one or I was going to have to move out of state,” O’Dwyer quipped.

It had been nearly a month since Bozarth called O’Dwyer claiming to be a producer with Critical Content, the company that made “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” and telling her about a new NFL Network show they were working on called “Gridiron Giveback.”

O’Dwyer wasn’t buying it, but she figured if she could keep the man talking long enough, she could figure out who was pranking her.

Bozarth continued, explaining he was reaching out for a couple of reasons. The upcoming Super Bowl would be played in Atlanta, and “Gridiron Giveback,” scheduled to begin airing Wednesday, focuses on incredible stories in and around the host city and features players with strong ties to Atlanta.

O’Dwyer still didn’t believe him.

“I assured him I’d never played in the NFL,” she said.

>> RELATED: Looking for ways to help victims of Hurricane Michael?

Bozarth kept talking, saying he Googled and a This Life column about her efforts providing relief to Hurricane Michael victims popped up and he wanted to possibly feature her on the show.

Well, he was right about the column. Maybe this wasn’t a trick, O’Dwyer thought.

Susan O’Dwyer, shown with a volunteer from the Ron Clark Academy and former NFL players, helped organize an event to color greeting cards and assemble gift bags for families of some 2,200 Georgia National Guard members being deployed to Afghanistan. CONTRIBUTED BY ALLIE JEST (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The two of them started kicking around ideas. Critical Content was interested in featuring the large deployment of National Guard members and the sacrifices made by the families that they leave behind. O’Dwyer told Bozarth about her husband, Ed, a volunteer with the Georgia State Defense Force, which responds to emergencies like Hurricane Michael in support of the National Guard, and connected him with Sally Mundell, founder of The Packaged Good, a nonprofit that provides personalized care packages for people in need.

From there, the event took on a life of its own, Bozarth said.

With help from Critical Content, O’Dwyer went to work looking for sponsors who would contribute gift items — toys, books, candles, cookies for the guard members’ children and lockets for every mother left behind. She called Mundell, who reached out to her boss at Kids II.

“We jumped at the opportunity to help The Packaged Good support our Georgia servicemen and women and create a tiny win for these families by letting them know that people care,” said Lynn Duncan, vice president of corporate communications.

O’Dwyer got goose pimples watching the swarm of activity, seeing the joy on the faces of NFL and community volunteers as they assembled care packages and colored greeting cards, but she still thought she might end up with egg on her face.

Then sometime around 8:30 a.m., Will Bozarth arrived, his camera crew in tow.

He would tell me much later that once he and O’Dwyer settled on helping organize a giveback to help the families, the two of them began working with the National Guard and its Family Readiness Support program, part of the 48th IBCT Military Family Support Branch, to identify a guardsman who was leaving behind a pregnant spouse.

>> RELATED: Georgia troops heading to Afghanistan as Trump orders drawdown

Family Readiness told them about Mary and National Guardsman Jonathon Hall, who after several miscarriages were expecting twins in April.

Sometime around 2 p.m., Bozarth and his team wrapped up filming at Kids II and headed east to Hall’s home in Monroe.

It was close to 4 p.m., raining and dark when they arrived. Jonathon Hall, 27, had already headed back to Fort Stewart. His wife and 12-year-old stepson Dawson greeted Bozarth and about 20 others, including O’Dwyer, several former NFL players and “Gridiron Giveback” host Tiffany Blackmon at the door.

Mary Hall expected some of them, but boy was she in for a big surprise.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

“They’d interviewed us at the deployment ceremony for my husband’s guard unit back in December,” Hall recalled. “I thought it was just going to be more questions, but it was a lot more than that. I was really taken aback.”

As the cameras rolled, Blackmon did ask more questions, but by the time it was all over, Bozarth’s crew, thanks to Kids II, had delivered two of everything imaginable for the twins’ nursery.

“It was just such a whirlwind experience,” Hall said. “I feel truly blessed.”

Luckily for the rest of us, it was all caught on camera, of course, and is scheduled to air through Feb. 8 on “Gridiron Giveback.”

O’Dwyer was beside herself as she watched the big surprise unfold.

“It’s just so crazy you can’t even believe it, but it really happened,” she said, still half-believing her eyes. “I felt like Alice in Wonderland. People wanted to give back. If you give them a concrete thing to do that will impact people directly, people will jump in. Sure it was the NFL Network, but they really came out to make a difference.”

Yes, they did.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

TV PREVIEW

‘Gridiron Giveback’

Hosts Warrick Dunn and Tiffany Blackmon are joined by a stable of NFL players and community leaders to help transform a local community in Georgia.

Airs at 10 p.m. Jan. 30; 2 a.m. Jan. 31; 10 p.m. Feb. 5; and 1 p.m. Feb. 8 on NFL Network.

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