Sales of hats NFL player created raises money for Catholic facility that helps people with special needs

By John Shaughnessy, OSV News

INDIANAPOLIS (OSV News) — If you have ever needed a friend, or been a friend to someone in need, you will appreciate the beauty of what Ted Karras is doing.

You may even marvel at how a small yet meaningful token of his friendship — a hat — is making such a huge difference to a Catholic-inspired place in Indianapolis that fosters friendships and a sense of community to people who desperately need and want those gifts in their lives.

Six residents of the Village of Merici in Indianapolis — a Catholic organization that provides housing, support services and educational opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities — showcase hats and T-shirts in an undated photo. The items are part of a fundraising effort led by Cathedral High School grad and Cincinnati Bengals football player Ted Karras that has raised nearly $400,000 for the Village. The residents are Mary McClamroch, left, Jason Renie, Trese Mascari, Sarah Boyd, Angie Cain and Steve Mailloux. (OSV News photo/courtesy Justin Sicking)

Through the sales of his personally designed hats in the past seven months, Karras — a 2011 graduate of Cathedral High School in Indianapolis and now an offensive lineman for the Cincinnati Bengals — has helped raise nearly $400,000 for the Village of Merici, an organization that provides housing, support services and educational opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities.

Named in honor of St. Angela Merici, the Village holds a special place in Karras’ heart for the hope and the promise it gives people.

“It provides such a wholesome environment for these people to live in, and it provides independence which otherwise would be hard to achieve,” he told The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. “These are adult men and women who want to be social, who want their independence, who want to have friends and activities. It does so much good, and it’s the honor of a lifetime to just be a small part of it.”

Still, there’s another reason that connects the 30-year-old Karras to the Village. That connection reflects a time in his young life when he was longing for a community that would feel like home to him.

Karras has lived in 18 different communities across America in his 30 years of life — the result of growing up as the son of a football coach who has coached in many places and his career playing in the National Football League, which has led to two Super Bowl rings.

He learned two truths from always being “the new kid in town” growing up: You long to find a home with people who will welcome you, accept you and befriend you. And you will never forget the people who gave you that feeling.

That’s why Karras has such an appreciation for the Village and another community in Indianapolis.

A coaching move for his dad led Karras to St. Matthew the Apostle School in Indianapolis as an eighth-grade student. There, he was immediately embraced by a group of friends and their families.

“The Indianapolis Catholic community really welcomed me in and gave me the feeling of a hometown that I had yet to feel up to that point in my life,” he said. “One of the really unique factors of that community is the lifelong bonds that people form with the friends they made in middle school and high school.

“I’ve yet to see another place in America where there’s such a tight-knit group of friends who have been friends since they were 10 or so. We’ve been friends for 20 years now. Not only friends, but intimate confidants and buddies.”

One friend became his introduction to the Village of Merici and the difference it makes: Matt Renie, whom Karras calls “my best friend.” They became close at St. Matthew, and their bond grew even tighter during their four years at Cathedral, which included volunteering together at the Village, each for personal reasons.

Karras has family members who have a history of autism. Renie’s oldest sibling, Jason, has intellectual and developmental disabilities, and their mother, Colleen Renie, also is one of the founders and is now the executive director of the Village of Merici.

Colleen and her husband, Joe, brought Jason, now 44, into their lives as a toddler shortly after they were married 45 years ago. He’s the oldest of the couples four children.

When she was first out of college, she worked at Crossroads Rehabilitation Center and Jason was a patient of hers. He was a foster child who was not going to be placed for adoption. “He had developmental delays. For two years, he wasn’t talking and crawling,” she recalled.

“I told my husband there’s this little boy at work that they’re not going to try to place. I told him I think we could do him some good and be a great, loving family for him. We applied for adoption and were able to bring him into our family.”

As a teenager, Karras saw that same approach of love and care being shared with the residents of the Village, the impact of that stayed with him as he continued playing football at the University of Illinois and has carried through to his seven-year pro career, which has included seasons with the Bengals, the Miami Dolphins and the New England Patriots, earning two Super Bowl rings with that team.

“I heard people’s stories and how the Village was affecting them,” Karras said. “I really can’t think of a place that does more good than the Village.”

That belief led to his touching gift to the Village in the past year, a gift that had its start in a simple sharing of a small yet meaningful token of his friendship — a hat.

When Karras joined the Bengals last year, he wanted a way to make an immediate connection with his new teammates. So he personally designed a hat with “Cincy” emblazoned across its front.

“It was a token of my affection and friendship, and that I want to continue to grow our relationship,” Karras said. “The guys really responded to it. They wore the hats everywhere.”

Karras also gave one to Renie last summer when he came to visit him in Cincinnati.

“It was a really cool hat, and I said, ‘This is awesome,'” Renie recalled. “He said, ‘I made it. It’s just a sign of my friendship. If you’re my friend, you get a hat.’ I wore the hat to a Bengals’ game, and I got stopped by multiple people saying, ‘I’ve seen the players wearing that hat. Where can I get one?’ ”

The word soon spread that Karras had made them, and the requests from fans about how to buy one increased dramatically.

The interest became so huge that beat reporters for the Bengals started asking Karras about the hats, just so they could pass along the information to their readers and followers. Wanting to focus on the Bengals’ push to the playoffs in November, Karras tired of questions about the hat.

“Almost out of a frustration, I said, ‘We are going to sell it, and it’s going to be for charity, and the only charity I support is the Village of Merici.'”

When Matt Renie, who works for a software startup company, heard about his friend’s out-of-the-blue plan, he told Karras that he would take over the sales and distribution of the hats.

The two created a business in about two weeks and the first night, “we sold about $70,000 in hats,” Renie said. “It was like a true explosion. Up to the end of the Bengals’ season, we had sold just under 10,000 hats.

“This has brought a sense of pride to the villagers. They’ve helped a lot with the project, packing orders, helping us organize our inventory. It’s so much fun to see them involved, to see how much they care, to see how proud they are that people are rallying around them and supporting them. There’s a feeling of, ‘Ted’s taking an interest in us. That’s so cool.’ ”

In all, the effort with the “Cincy” hat raised about $380,000 for the Village, Colleen said.

It also inspired the creations of an “Indy” hat and T-shirts that Karras has designed to be introduced with the Indianapolis 500 this May.

The proceeds from both hats and the T-shirts will be used to expand the housing capabilities of the Village, Colleen said. Right now, the facility is able to accommodate about 80 people in its location on the east side of Indianapolis. A new facility scheduled to open in nearby Carmel this summer — and another facility planned on the east side to open in 2024 — will double the number of people who will benefit.

“My relationship with many of the villagers is like a shot of light for me,” Karras said.

Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

Leave a Reply