Anthony Muñoz, raised by his single mother, learned valuable lessons from various people in his life. His oldest brother taught him the importance of humility, advising him at the age of 7, “You never have to talk about how good you are on an athletic field because if you’re good enough, people will notice.”
Muñoz also found mentors in uncles and coaches who taught him that while sports were fantastic, there was more to life than just excelling on the football field. He took these messages to heart and shared them with inner-city youth when he was a college athlete at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
After college, he played for 13 seasons as an offensive lineman for the Cincinnati Bengals. Initially, he recalls, he didn’t care for people tugging at him for autographs. Then it dawned on him that as a pro athlete, he had a unique platform and, therefore, a prime opportunity to positively impact the lives of young individuals.
“Parents and teachers might communicate a message to kids, but — like it or not — kids will listen to athletes,” says Muñoz. He recognized that more can be accomplished when working as a team. He is amused when someone describes themselves as a self-made individual yet proceeds to read two or three pages of names of the people who have helped them find success. “You can’t get there on your own,” he says.
Muñoz established the Anthony Muñoz Foundation in 2002 after he retired from the NFL. The Foundation’s mission is to improve the mental, physical and spiritual well-being of young people in Greater Cincinnati. He intentionally delayed starting the Foundation until after his NFL career ended and his children were in college so he could actively participate in the Foundation’s daily operations, events and decision-making.
“When I was playing pro football, I didn’t have the time to devote to anything beyond the field and my family,” he says. “Now, however, I can be totally engaged.”
And he is. He is involved in planning meetings, speaking engagements, youth seminars and overnight camps.
The Anthony Muñoz Foundation, now 22 years old, offers programs and camps, including two two-day overnight camps for 130-150 young men. Staff teach them about football but primarily focus on character-building.
“We teach these kids how to be productive citizens in their communities,” says Muñoz, noting that the Foundation names an MVP — Most Valuable Person — at each camp. “You can be a great athlete, but you won’t get MVP if you’re not the best person.”
Muñoz, 65, has discovered that his impact has been more significant since retiring from football.
“As an athlete, you play a small part in impacting the outcome of a game or a season,” he says. “But when partnering as a community member and using your platform, you can be part of a much bigger team that can impact a young man or woman’s life forever.”
The nonprofit organization reaches 2,500 children annually through seven programs. It has also recently incorporated a trauma-informed care component to ensure that programming is effectively helping youth who come from hard stories.
“I give a lot of credit to my staff,” says Muñoz. “They do an amazing job of running all our programs and utilizing volunteers, interns and corporate partners.”
Muñoz finds joy in witnessing kids’ faces light up with accomplishment when they do something they once thought impossible. He fondly recalls a particular instance at an overnight camp where a young boy was too scared to try the zipline. To encourage him, Muñoz offered to go first. Once he reached the bottom, he saw the boy sitting on the platform with all the other campers lined up on both sides of the zipline. The crowd buzzed with anticipation as the boy grabbed the rope and lowered his head.
“As he came flying down, the other campers erupted in cheers,” says Muñoz. “Man, he was the king! He had the biggest smile on his face! That’s what it’s all about.”
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Muñoz’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He fondly reminisces about the great men he has known.
“Sadly, we’ve lost a lot of great Hall of Famers — guys like Merlin Olsen, Deacon Jones and Gale Sayers,” he says. “I treasure the relationships I’ve built with guys that I admired not only as football players but as men.”
Discover the inspiring work of the Anthony Muñoz Foundation, located at 8919 Rossash Rd., Cincinnati, OH 45236. For more information, visit munozfoundation.org.