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Falcons surprise kids with spree
Event ‘chance to give back'
walmart 4a
Atlanta Falcon Trey Lewis pushes his new friends, Myrianne, front, and Terriona down the doll aisle at Wal-mart. - photo by Jim Dean
Mark Anthony doesn’t get to go shopping for fun often. Like many these days, his family doesn’t have much money to spare.

But Monday night, the Atlanta youth not only went shopping, he had a special partner.

Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez towered behind him as Anthony went from aisle to aisle at the Wal-Mart in Cumming.

Gonzalez’ “Shop with a Jock” holiday program gave nearly 50 underprivileged children from Atlanta each a $100 shopping spree with a professional football player.

“Every kid should have a Christmas,” said Gonzalez, who rounded up about 20 of his teammates to help.

“It’s unfortunate that they may not have the opportunity to open gifts on Christmas morning, so this is a great way to show the kids that somebody cares.”

Gonzalez said the opportunity to spend time with the children was a great way to take their minds off Sunday’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles and focus on what’s really important during the holidays.

The children came from the Atlanta Union Mission, a nonprofit that helps people who have lost their homes or left bad situations and need shelter. And they thought they were going ice skating.

Melissa Clayton, director of volunteer services at Atlanta Union Mission, kept the final destination a secret from the children.

“They were more excited to meet the players than when they heard about the shopping trip,” she said. “That was a bonus.”

For Clayton, it was encouraging to see the children smiling and not worrying about their day-to-day lives.

Donning T-shirts with the Falcon wearing a Santa hat, the pairs of children, ages 6 to 17, fanned out across the store, with a football player hunched over a shopping cart not too far behind.

Keith Zinger followed a couple teenagers through the shoe and clothing departments. Tony Gilbert helped two young girls pick out electronics.

Michael Turner shopped for remote control cars with a couple boys.

The players volunteered when they learned about the program from teammate Gonzalez, who brought it with him from Kansas City, where he played until this season.

“It’s always fun seeing kids getting excited about Christmastime,” Turner said. “And just to make the experience for them, not just enjoy it with them.”

Professional football players shopping at a local Wal-Mart didn’t go unnoticed.

Customer Ty Phongsavanh, who happened to be wearing a Tony Gonzalez jersey, stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Michael Turner.

“I’m a huge fan,” he said. “I’m speechless.”

The players stopped to sign autographs or take photographs with shoppers, but always kept their attention on the children they were accompanying.

Ovie Mughelli may have had the best time. Mughelli and the two teenage girls danced and sang through the store, wearing matching hats.

Dubbed by Mughelli as the “hat crew,” the trio had two carts loaded with school supplies, clothing, jewelery and gifts for family.

Though the girls went over their $100 gift cards, Mughelli, like several other players, picked up the remainder of the tab on his own.

“If you have a chance to help somebody, I don’t see why you shouldn’t,” he said. “I definitely have the means to help.”

Mughelli recalled being a young boy in New York, living in a one-bedroom apartment with a family that struggled.

At Christmastime, he said, friends would take him and his siblings on a day of shopping and ice cream, similar to the spree at “Shop with a Jock.”

“When I’ve got a chance to give back and do the same thing for other people, it’s a treat,” Mughelli said. “It’s not even work, it’s fun.”

Online editor Jim Dean contributed to this report.