Four of the last five winners of the NFL’s Salute to Service Award have been connected to the Atlanta Falcons. The most recent is Steve Cannon, the CEO of AMB Sports & Entertainment, Arthur Blank’s holding group for the Falcons, Atlanta United, and his other for-profit endeavors.
Cannon, a veteran and a graduate of West Point, has been instrumental in the team’s commitment to our active duty, our veterans, and their families.
“I went to Arthur Blank very early in my tenure, when I joined five years ago, and essentially said to Arthur, ‘Hey, you know, Georgia is the home of Fort Benning and Fort Stewart, Fort Gordon, we’ve probably got a higher concentration of military and their families than almost any other state in the country,’ Cannon told The Falcoholic during the week leading up to Super Bowl LV. “So if there’s an NFL team that needs to get Salute to Service right, it needs to be us.”
The Falcons have gotten it right. Former head coach Dan Quinn won the award in 2016, Andre Roberts won in 2017, Ben Garland in 2018, and this year, Cannon takes home the honors. He hopes this is just the beginning, and expects the team will continue this focus on honoring our military and our veterans in the Arthur Smith-Terry Fontenot era.
“We want to become the benchmark in all of the NFL when it comes to honoring and recognizing service and sacrifice for our military,” Cannon said. “And the fact that four out of the last five years, we’re the recipient of the USAA Salute to Service Award, is an indication that we that we’ve been doing a pretty good job of using our powerful platforms to honor the military.”
USAA donates $25,000 each year to the official aid societies of each branch of the Armed Services in honor of the Salute to Service Award recipient. The NFL matches that donation with a $25,000 gift to a military-focused charity of the recipient’s choice. For Cannon, that choice was easy this year.
Cannon helped found the Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund with some West Point classmates to honor one of their own, Col. John McHugh. McHugh spent 24 years serving our country in the US Army. He was killed in action by a suicide bomber in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2010.
The Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund was initially started to provide support to McHugh’s wife, Connie, and their five children in the wake of his passing, and since has branched out to a 501(c)(3) organization providing scholarships to veterans and military family members, with a special focus on the surviving families of servicemen and women who have been injured or killed in the line of duty.
“We formed the official 501(c)(3) Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund. And since 2014, we’ve raised $20 million for children of the fallen, and our mission is to provide college scholarships to those kids whose parents have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country,” Cannon said. “And it’s obviously personified by John McHugh. So that one’s personal for me. That’s something that I’m intimately involved with as one of the cofounders of that of that 501(c)(3). So for me, that $25,000 is going to a great, great place and will fund scholarships for a couple of kids.”
If you’d like to support the work of the Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund with a tax-deductible donation, you can do so via their website.
Navigating the pandemic
While the Falcons’ emphasis on honoring our active duty military, our veterans, and their families hasn’t changed, many other changes have taken place over the past few months for our nation and the Falcons. Cannon, who oversees Mercedes-Benz Stadium, shared some background on what it was like to adjust to operating a 71,000-seat stadium during a global pandemic.
Cannon and his team were gearing up for hosting the Final Four in 2020, one of the biggest sporting events in the country each year, when sports were shut down due to the COVID-19 virus. Eventually, they were able to welcome fans back into the stadium.
“We were proud that even though we shut down our soccer season for Atlanta United, we eventually were able to open up in October, we opened up to both Atlanta United and Falcons games,” Cannon said. “And we ended up hosting all of our home Falcons games, albeit with many, many fewer fans in the stands socially distanced, but we had to adapt on-the-fly cleaning protocols. Our players had to adapt to very strict NFL guidelines that would that would keep them socially distanced and had to be tested every single day.”
It wasn’t easy, but the team made it work by being flexible and being smart.
“So at the end, it was a lesson in being flexible, learning as much as you could, and then just adapting along the way. And the fact that the NFL is about to crown a Super Bowl champion, and to think that they’ve gotten through 256 regular season games — it’s nothing short of a miracle that they were able to do that safely despite the pandemic and despite the fact that this surge through the fall has made it even more difficult.”
The Falcons’ new regime
Of course I asked Cannon about Atlanta’s new head coach, Arthur Smith, and GM, Terry Fontenot. He’s impressed with the Falcons’ new duo.
“They’ve each got unique and amazing stories, football stories, where they came from, how they got to where they are, they’re incredible people, high character people,” Cannon said. “The most important filter for anybody that joins the organization is: Can they operate consistent with our core values that drive Arthur, that drive our organization? [Fontenot and Smith] are amazing, high-character people that have done really terrific things throughout their careers. We could not be more excited.”
Cannon also elaborated a bit on the process that led Fontenot and Smith to the Falcons.
“It was a very detailed process, and I feel great about the process that we went through,” he said. “We cast a very wide net across across sports to bring Arthur and Terry through our doors. It was a wonderful process. We feel great about it. Now they’ve hit the ground here in Atlanta and are already starting to add value to our organization.”
Fans have generally been excited about the new hires, and Cannon echoed that sentiment.
“We’re excited. We’re thrilled to just roll up our sleeves and get going.”