To fully appreciate the bond between Mario and Sophia, it helps to know Mario's story. After being heavily recruited by exclusive college football programs as a defensive end, Mario received shocking news just two months into his North Carolina State University college career. His brother-in-law, a soldier during Operation Iraqi Freedom, had been killed in duty.
Mario planned to give up his budding football career to help his widowed sister and nephews. But following some gentle encouragement from his sister, Mario continued college to eventually achieve his dream of playing for the NFL when he was drafted in 2006. After witnessing how his family coped with loss, Mario made it his life's work to reach out to other military families who had experienced the same tragedy.
For Mario, 8-year-old Sophia's story struck a chord. Sophia lost her father in active duty in Afghanistan at the age of 3. To make matters worse, Sophia had been bullied at school for not having a dad. While working with Sophia at the Buffalo YMCA for NFL Characters Unite, Mario was able to connect with the young girl through their shared stories in a therapeutic art class.
NFL Characters Unite producer Charlie Ebersol says of their special encounter, "One of the most powerful revelations between Mario and Sophia came in the shape and colors of the American flag. As Mario told Sophia how, before every game during the singing of the national anthem, he looks to the flag and says a prayer to his lost brother-in-law, Sophia perked up and revealed that she does the same whenever she sees a flag."
"Both discovered that the other found solace in the Old Glory because both believed their fallen loved one's spirit was entombed within the flag. This series has brought about many incredible connections between players and kids, but this one will resonate with me for the rest of my life."
This compelling connection between an NFL great and a child is the running theme through the one-hour documentary, narrated by Cris Collinsworth. NFL Characters Unite features such star players as Mario Williams of the Buffalo Bills, seen in the clip above; Darren Sproles of the Philadelphia Eagles; Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs; and Richard Sherman and Coach Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks. The fourth annual documentary premieres on USA at 7 p.m. EST on Friday, Feb. 6.
The "special" part of this special is how we get to see the human side of football heroes as they open up to kids from all walks of life. Football fans, get ready to see your favorite player in a different light — and bring the tissues.
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