Atlanta Falcons executive Steve Cannon is the recipient of the NFL’s Salute to Service Award.
Now in its 10th year, the award recognizes exceptional efforts to honor and support members of the military community. It will be presented Saturday at NFL Honors, when The Associated Press announces its individual NFL awards.
USAA, a provider of insurance and other services to U.S. military members, veterans and their families, will contribute $25,000 in Cannon’s honor to the official aid societies representing all five military branches. The NFL and Falcons owner Arthur Blank will match USAA’s donation of $25,000, which will be donated to Cannon’s military charity of choice, Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund.
Cannon is the CEO of AMB Sports and Entertainment, the company named for Blank that also includes the MLS Atlanta United team, and the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He graduated with honors from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1986, was an Airborne Ranger and served in West Germany during the fall of the Iron Curtain. He also served five years as an artillery officer.
“The fund is named for Col. John M. McHugh, who lived right down the hall from me at West Point, captain of the soccer team, a devout family man and had a family of five kids,” Cannon says. “He was killed in 2010 in Afghanistan by a suicide bomber. We all from our class took a gut bench, it shook us all. And a small group of us gathered together, we wanted to raise money to essentially take care of the family.
“We did that successfully for a couple years and then a classmate and me … talked about what we had done for John’s family, and there are so many other families like John’s whose parents made the ultimate sacrifice. Our mission is take care of those left behind.”
The Johnny Mac fund awards college scholarships to the children of military members killed in battle. It has raised $28 million and has had more than 3,000 Johnny Mac scholars.
“We feel we are saying, ‘We will be taking care of your kids and the best way for them to honor you and your sacrifice is to get their education,”’ Cannon says. “We pinch ourselves. We thought, ‘Let’s raise a couple million and we will feel thrilled.’ And six years later, $28 million, it has been an amazing thing.”
Consistently, Cannon has found ways to implement programs in service to the military. Upon joining the Falcons he began arranging trips each spring for the team to meet with active duty personnel; the Falcons became the first NFL team to conduct their own USO Tour. One of the tours went to Arlington National Cemetery, another to Walter Reed Medical Center.
Cannon brought several Falcons players to West Point on another tour. And then there was a trip to Iraq.
“We flew to Kuwait, spent three days and bounced around bases across Iraq,” he recalls. “In some cases we were at full operating bases. We got to meet soldiers in their environment: 100 degrees, located in the middle of nowhere, no amenities. It was a close and personal experience, and an opportunity to walk in their shoes even for three days was life changing for coach (Dan) Quinn and the players. It made tangible what our soldiers go through every single day to protect us.
“If we could to that for Americans in general, to see what soldiers do for us every day, the level of commitment and support would never be a second priority.”
The other finalists were San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch and New England Patriots long snapper Joe Cardona.
Former Los Angeles Charger Donnie Edwards, the 2019 recipient, was on the judging panel along with Vice Admiral John Bird (Retired), USAA senior vice president of military affairs; Lenny Bandy, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and NFL vice president of security; Chad Hennings, an Air Force Academy graduate and three-time Super Bowl champion; Jim Mora, a Marine Corps veteran and former NFL head coach; and ex-NFL player Vincent Jackson, the 2015 Salute to Service Award recipient.
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