WALLINGFORD — United Way hosted a buffet dinner and auction at Zandri’s Stillwood Inn Friday, kicking off the tenth annual NFL Players’ Weekend.
Joe Linta, president of JL Sports, has organized the event with United Way of Meriden and Wallingford for the entire 10 years. All proceeds go to youth programs in Meriden and Wallingford.
James Ieronimo, executive director of United Way of Meriden and Wallingford, said this year they expect to surpass $500,000 in donations over the 10 years. The NFL Players’ Weekend is the United Ways’ largest fundraising event.
“We have grown every year, this is probably our biggest year,” Ieronimo said, adding that all the weekend events were sold out. “I think we’re not over-selling it by saying that a lot of the good that our agencies are able to do happens because this community comes together and supports this event.”
This year marks the 25th year Linta has organized a charity event benefiting United Way, inviting community members to mingle with NFL players. After a few years, what started as a bowling event evolved into a weekend-long event with an auction dinner night and youth clinic.
“The most fulfilling part is the clinic part where you see all these kids so bright-eyed because they never get to spend a day playing with NFL players,” Pinta said.
Ieronimo said the energy of the auction night and bowling is exciting, but the clinic is special.
“We’ve had kids come in and when they see the football players come in, the kids burst into tears, they’re so excited,” Ieronimo said. “We have the most user-friendly 350 pound football players when it comes to taking care of these kids and giving them an afternoon they don’t forget.”
Players expected to attend included New England Patriots Brian Hoyer and Cyrus Jones, along with players from the New York Giants, Chicago Bears, and others. About 22 players were expected throughout the weekend, including current college players and former Super Bowl champions.
Bradley Bozeman, the Alabama University offensive lineman who proposed to his girlfriend moments after winning the College Football Playoff National Championship this year, attended, along with Will Shields, a NFL Hall of Famer and recipient of the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for the nonprofit he started in 1992.