By Alison Bailin Batz
Mike Nealy comes from a long line of caregivers.
“I grew up in a small town in Minnesota, where my father was the local doctor,” Nealy says. “And before he was the local doc, it was my grandfather’s role.”
As a result, health and wellness were important to Nealy from a young age.
“While I had medicine in my actual DNA, it just wasn’t in me to follow in their footsteps,” Nealy says. “Like them, I wanted to help people but knew medicine wasn’t my path.”
Playing sports, however, was very much his path. So much so, in fact, the standout high school athlete began coaching youth football upon graduation in 1983.
Over the next 10 years, while earning both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business at the University of Minnesota and getting his start at a Fortune 500 company, Nealy would continue to coach, winning eight league championships along the way.
“I hung up my whistle in 1994,” Nealy says. “But sports would come calling again soon enough.”
That opportunity came in 2001, when the NHL’s Minnesota Wild recruited him for their leadership team. Then, in December 2005, the then-Phoenix Coyotes reached out.
“If you’ve been in Minnesota in December, you’ll understand why sunny Phoenix was so appealing,” says Nealy, who became the team’s executive vice president and chief financial officer in 2006, advancing to president and chief operating officer in 2010.
During his time with the Coyotes, Nealy also got involved in local volunteer efforts, joining the boards for both the Partnership for a Drug-Free America’s local chapter and the Fighter Country Partnership Foundation.
“While giving back both within the confines of the team as well as my work outside of the office, I got the bug to get involved in helping others in a really big way, just not in the same medical way it did for the others in my family,” Nealy says. “It became clear to me that if there was a way to marry my passion for working in sports with my desire to give back, I — with like-minded others — could make a big impact.”
Enter the Fiesta Bowl.
Bringing life full circle, the former youth football coach took on the executive director role of the Fiesta Bowl in 2014.
“The Fiesta Bowl has long been well known as one of the elite college football postseason games,” Nealy says.
Maybe the game that put the Fiesta Bowl on the map was in 1987 when Penn State defeated Miami, 14-10, in the first arranged national championship. Penn State intercepted Vinny Testaverde five times, the last one on the game’s final play as the Hurricanes were inside the 10-yard line and driving to score.
“Our reputation as a first-in-class college football bowl organization has been established over 50 years, from our well-known hospitality, hosting some of college football’s most memorable moments and being a ‘Bowl of Firsts’ — the first to have a title sponsor, the first to have a female and African American as Bowl president, the first to have 3,000 volunteers, the first of the then-nonlegacy bowls to host a national championship,” Nealy says.
Beyond all of this, according to Nealy, at the heart of the Fiesta Bowl Organization is a simple mission: to enhance organizations that contribute to the success of their communities through youth, sports and education.
Through its two annual bowl games in the Valley, the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl and the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, as well as community events throughout the year such as the Desert Financial Fiesta Bowl Parade, Fiesta Bowl Charities makes an almost immeasurable impact on the community.
Over the past year alone, Nealy and his team have:
• Donated more than 50,000 pieces of personal protective equipment.
• Provided nearly 3.75 million meals to those in need.
• Supported more than 688,000 youth through grant programs.
• Personally touched nearly 50 local nonprofits via time and financial contributions.
“Back in 1971, when our nine founders approached the NCAA about bringing a bowl game to Arizona, they called it ‘the state’s largest and most important community effort in history,’ and they had no idea just how spot on they would be,” Nealy says.
Among the causes nearest and dearest to Nealy’s heart is alive and well every day all over the state: Desert Financial Fiesta Bowl Charities Wishes for Teachers.
“We saw that many teachers spent their own money to enhance their classroom experience, so we developed Wishes for Teachers to aid teachers in that effort,” Nealy says. “As a way to support, celebrate and honor Arizona educators, teachers fill out an online application detailing their school and classroom wish. Wishes are to be selected by a random drawing to receive a grant.”
In its five years, Wishes for Teachers granted more $3.7 million to Arizona teachers, impacting 300,000-plus students at 400 schools across the state.
“In coming weeks, that number will approach $5 million as we plan to give away $1 million and double the amount of teachers across Arizona to 400 grantees during this year’s event,” Nealy says.
In addition to supporting local teachers, Nealy will spend December honoring those who came before him in Arizona giving.
“This year’s Desert Financial Fiesta Bowl Parade presented by Lerner & Rowe will honor Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Alice Cooper and the Fiesta Bowl Founders as Grand Marshals for the Saturday, December 18, march through the Central Phoenix,” Nealy says.
Cooper and the nine Fiesta Bowl Founders have impacted Arizonans in immeasurable ways and align with the theme of “Gold Standard: A Commitment to CommUNITY” to honor the organization’s 50th anniversary of community impact.
The Desert Financial Fiesta Bowl Parade presented by Lerner & Rowe Grand Marshal honors an individual or group whose actions align with the Fiesta Bowl’s commitment to driving economic growth, championing charitable causes and executing innovative experiences. A combination of more than 3,000 men, women, children and animals participate in the Desert Financial Fiesta Bowl Parade annually — which features various brilliantly colored floats, giant balloons, antique cars, equestrian units, charitable groups, local celebrities, marching bands and more.
Seems safe to say that while Nealy never got an M.D., he is well on his way to earning an honorary Ph.D. in G-I-V-I-N-G.
For more, visit fiestabowl.org.