In the shadow of the Super Bowl, my commitment to send our heroes to the big game

Zambezi's Chris Raih has spent the last four years helping homeless veterans like Orrin and Larry (l.-r.) attend the Super Bowl / Chris Raih

Each year the Super Bowl has grown in spectacle. It’s now an all-consuming American tradition that worships the likes of Tom Brady, Justin Timberlake, and the Budweiser Clydesdales. But its bright lights don’t quite make room for everyone. In fact, attending the game itself is often reserved for masters-of-the-universe (or well-placed ad execs). The needy and the marginalized need not apply.

That’s why we’re proud to go against the grain. For the fourth year in a row, I’ve been able to work with a small group of dedicated people — including my brother David Raih, a top-flight NFL assistant coach with the Green Bay Packers — to send homeless veterans to the Super Bowl.

The origin of our Super Bowl Vets program was actually a pang of guilt. As an agency founder, with a cultivated network in sports marketing, I’m fortunate to receive access to game tickets. When the tickets to Super Bowl 49 hit my desk several years ago, my knee-jerk reaction was — of course — to think about the CMO partners or bigshot friends I might invite.

But upon further reflection, I wondered, what if we went in the complete opposite direction? Instead of adding even more privilege to an already glitzy event, could we give some dignity to most forgotten, cast-aside people in America?

According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV), over 1.4 million veterans are either homeless or at risk to be on the streets soon. And when it happens, homeless vets are significantly younger and more ethnically diverse than the general homeless population (almost 50% of homeless vets are African American or Hispanic).

So I reached out to my brother David and bounced the idea his way. Raised in a home of five sons, with wonderful parents, we’ve all come to admire Pope Francis. Pope Frank, as I call him, says, "There is a lot of poverty in the world, and that's a scandal when we have so many riches and resources. We all have to think about how we can become a little poorer."

So we set the plan in motion to become a little poorer — and help others feel like human beings again, if only for a day.

Over the years we’ve worked directly with incredible organizations including Andre House in Phoenix, St. Anthony Foundation in San Francisco, De George at Union Station in Houston. This year is personally fulfilling as the Super Bowl is in our hometown of Minneapolis. Three Amicus Veterans Justice participants will receive the tickets, along with fresh clothes, first-class transportation, and money to walk around with. Amicus Veterans Justice Advocate Chris Lowe will accompany the trio to the game. The Veterans Justice program, part of Volunteers of America – Minnesota and Wisconsin, helps homeless veterans and veterans at risk of becoming homeless.

The root causes go deep. Obviously, this annual program isn’t a cure-all. But it is about dignity, and trying to help marginalized people restore some feeling of self-worth. A few years ago, I spoke with Orrin Trumbo, one of thousands of vets on the streets of San Francisco. He called me from a loaner cell phone, en route to Super Bowl 50. I asked if he was having fun. In a thin, sandpaper voice, Orrin whispered back, “I’ve never been in a limousine before.”

Super Bowl Sunday is a good reminder that homeless veterans are worthy of our respect and they deserve better than the hand they’ve been dealt.

So think about Orrin when you’re watching the game this weekend — and Larry, Mercedes, Tim, Austin, Peter, Al, Scott, Melvin, Shane — and all men and women we’ve been able to send to the Super Bowl. Donate your time and talent in the ways you see fit. The shelters listed above are just a few of the incredible organizations doing good work every day.

And look for small ways you and your staff can “become a little poorer” for the forgotten heroes among us. Surely we can make room for them.

Chris Raih is founder and president of Zambezi

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