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Zach Mettenberger LSU draft hopeful signs a football for Donald Coletta 11 of Branford during a United Way NFL banquet Friday at Zandri's Stillwood Inn in Wallingford   March,7 2014 | Justin Weekes / For the Record-Journal
Donald Coletta 11 of Branford and Tucker Jacobson 11 of Branford view the silent auction prizes during the United Way NFL banquet Friday at Zandri's Stillwood Inn in Wallingford   March,7 2014 | Justin Weekes / For the Record-Journal Meriden Mayor Manny Santos talks with Sheinea Doram of New Haven during the United Way NFL banquet Friday at Zandri's Stillwood Inn in Wallingford   March,7 2014 | Justin Weekes / For the Record-Journal Crystal Cobb of Milford gets a football signed by Chief's Rodney Hudson during a United Way NFL banquet Friday at Zandri's Stillwood Inn in Wallingford   March,7 2014 | Justin Weekes / For the Record-Journal

Players Weekend helps United Way effort

WALLINGFORD — The United Way of Meriden and Wallingford kicked off the 21st annual NFL Players Weekend Friday night with a dinner and auction at Zandri’s Stillwood Inn on South Colony Road.

The event was started in 1994 by JL Sports’ Joe Linta, an agent of former Super Bowl MVP and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and other players. It began with six players in Branford, near where Linta lives, before it was adopted by the local United Way chapter six years ago. Linta arrived with a 30-player entourage this year.

Baltimore Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk said the weekend is “a good time and a chance to help a good cause,” while getting to see a lot of other NFL players.

The weekend consists of three events over two days. Friday’s rounds of bidding is to be followed with a youth football clinic at Choate Rosemary Hall’s Johnson Athletic Center from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. today. About 180 kids are expected to participate.

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Miguel Maysonet said he is looking forward to the session. “The kids, they look up to us,” he said.

The second day will finish with “Bowl With The Pros” at Colony Lanes on South Colony Road, in which parties of eight will use each lane, accompanied by a pro player. “You and seven of your friends can go bowling with an NFL player,” said James Ieronimo, executive director of the United Way of Meriden and Wallingford.

Offensive lineman Spencer Long of the University of Nebraska, who will enter the NFL draft next month, said he will enjoy the activity even though he’s not a bowler. “I’ll be happy if I break 100,” he said.

The number of pro football players participating is not the only part of the weekend that has grown since its inception. Linta said he expected to raise $60,000 to $70,000 during the two-day event, a marked difference from the $2,000 that he raised in 1994.

Proceeds from the event will benefit United Way funded youth organizations. Ieronimo said youth programming represents the organization’s “biggest chunk of fundraising” and NFL Players Weekend is its biggest fundraiser.

Larry McGoldrick, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Meriden, said United Way funds helped subsidize his group’s 21st Century Program, an after-school literacy program at John Barry School.

The evening began with a silent auction and dinner buffet. Guests submitted bids for autographed football gear, computers, televisions, vacations, and other offerings, while a buffet was served.

After the dinner and auction, several dignitaries spoke. Meriden Mayor Manuel A. Santos said the United Way and the organizations it funds help one in three city residents and expressed his thanks for their assistance.

ABC and ESPN college football broadcaster Joe Tessitore, a Wallingford native said the United Way “has always been a positive force for change.”

Quarterback Brian Hoyer of the Cleveland Browns, the NFL United Way 2014 Player of the Year, is an Ohio native, but said he now feels like a local because he has participated in the weekend for the past six years. “It’s an honor to be here with you guys in this community to help the United Way,” he said.

After the speakers concluded, a live auction commenced, led by a guest auctioneer, Fox CT meteorologist Matt Scott. Items up for bid included deluxe ticket packages to high-profile sporting events, boutique electronics packages, and opportunities to meet and socialize with celebrities from the sports world.

“This thing just keeps getting better and better,” Linta told the crowd in prefacing remarks. “Now we’re gonna have a good time and make some money for the United Way.” (203) 317-2242 Twitter: @JeffGebeau

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