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Difference Maker

Healing the visible – and invisible – scars of war through flag football

Iraqi war veteran Nico Marcolongo founded the ‘Buddy Bowl’ to benefit military veterans.

By Staff Writer / December 14, 2009

Nico Marcolongo founded Buddy Bowl Inc., which has raised more than $380,000 for military and law enforcement charities. He came to Millis, Mass., for a soggy fundraising game.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff

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Millis, Mass.

Never mind that the rain is coming down in sheets and a nor’easter is whipping up wind in 20 m.p.h. gusts. Nico Marcolongo is undeterred. With a sturdy Marine stride and the bellowing enthusiasm of a motivational speaker, Mr. Marcolongo is here to “heal through football.”

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On the surface, a flag football tournament in a soggy Boston suburb may not seem remarkable. But Marcolongo has a proven knack for turning the ordinary into a powerful force for good, and having fun doing it.

Today is no exception. The Iraq war veteran’s effusive leadership dissolves otherwise stoic New Englanders into laughter as his team, the “Mongo Maniacs,” gets progressively muddier.

This is Buddy Bowl (buddybowl.org), a football charity fundraiser that supports disabled military veterans and fire and police first responders.
“I’m following my passion of helping troops and their families recover from visible and invisible wounds,” Marcolongo says. “We took our love of football and channeled it to support a worthy cause.”

Buddy Bowl is a culmination of all of Marco­longo’s pursuits: football, military, and community. His ability to weave together unrelated groups has turned what was a casual pickup game among friends into the all-volunteer, nonprofit Buddy Bowl Inc. Since 1999, the annual tournament has raised more than $380,000.

The Millis event was the first East Coast tournament – actually the first tournament outside San Diego. Missing it wasn’t an option for Marcolongo, who flew 3,000 miles to run around in the rain. He hopes to grow many more Buddy Bowls in communities around the country to support local military charities.

“The Buddy Bowls are a healing experience,” says Marcolongo, who also mentors physically challenged vets through Operation Rebound, a Buddy Bowl charity. “It’s a time to celebrate what is in ourselves and help others. It’s a time for communities to come together, a chance for civilians to meet service men and women.”

While there were only able-bodied participants at the Millis tournament, Buddy Bowl has succeeded in getting disabled vets off the sidelines and back into cleats – many of whom wouldn’t have even considered tossing around a football without Marcolongo’s encouragement and friendship.

“Nico is awesome,” says Sam Cila, a retired New York National Guardsman who lost his left hand after sustaining injuries from an explosion in Baghdad in 2005. “After meeting Nico [in 2006] and him introducing me to some premier [physically challenged] military athletes ... I said, ‘You know what? I want to do that.’ ” Mr. Cila has since competed in two Buddy Bowl tournaments and five half-Ironman triathlons. “I found a home with these guys,” Cila says.

Buddy Bowl started as a beach game among a group of high school friends every Saturday after Thanksgiving in San Diego. Then, in 1999, 10 days before that year’s kickoff, a helicopter on a training run crashed off Point Loma, Calif., killing six marines on board. Four of them were from Marcolongo’s unit.

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