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There were lots of reasons Justin Harrington gravitated to his granddad’s restaurant.
He loved hanging out with his grandfather, standing alongside him at the stove and learning as he cooked sausage and eggs, grilled cheese sandwiches and any of the other specialties at Larry’s Southern Kitchen on the south side of Raleigh, North Carolina.
Harrington loved the food, too; grits were a favorite and still are serious business.
Or rather, what a person adds to their grits.
“Grits in my family can get you disowned,” Harrington said with a chuckle.
The lessons the OU defensive back learned weren’t just about food.
He saw how his granddad helped people who were down on their luck, and maybe even needed a second chance. He’d let folks take home food and pay when or if they could. He’d hire others to wash dishes or bus tables or prep ingredients or work the grill. Then he’d give them not only a paycheck but also extra food to take home.
Harrington’s grandfather quietly but consistently helped others.
“This is my superhero,” Harrington remembers thinking.
“I’m a reflection of him.”
Now, Harrington is doing what he can to help others and follow in the footsteps of his grandfather and many others in his family — but he’s getting an assist from an unexpected source.
Name, image and likeness is about as popular in college sports as overpriced gameday parking and understaffed concession stands. There’s a widely held belief that the NIL money being paid to athletes is going to wreck college sports because of the excess or the expense or both.
But what Harrington is doing flips that script. In his story, NIL isn’t evil.
His story might just change the way you think about NIL.
‘My money’s going to good use’
First of all, a disclaimer: there is a lot of money in NIL, and a sizeable chunk of that money is going to athletes with few strings attached.
Greg King is working to change that.
He is the CEO of Team NILO, short for Name, Image, Likeness Opportunities. His Dallas-based company connects with collectives, the groups that raise money from donors and boosters, and then distribute it to athletes through NIL. Because of IRS rules, the payments can be taxed, but that changes if money is tied to a public interest.
Nonprofits, for example.
King knows firsthand the difficulties faced by many nonprofits. He started one a few years ago with former NFL great Mike Singletary, a longtime friend. Even though Singletary is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, King said it was tough to raise money and gain ground.
“Knowing the struggles of nonprofits to continue their mission, I want to amplify their brand,” King said.
“And that’s what the athletes who have an influence in these communities … are bringing to the table.”
In his work with OU athletes, King seeks nonprofits in Norman and the surrounding area who need help. Some need to have their brand elevated with promotion. Others want a spokesperson to take their mission to more people. Whatever the needs, King works with the nonprofit to develop a catalog of opportunities and options where OU athletes could help.
It’s everything from appearing at an event to promoting a campaign on their social media.
Those opportunities are assigned a monetary value, and then loaded onto an app where athletes can choose what they want to do, report their progress, and even have a compliance report produced.
Payment isn’t from the nonprofit but from NIL.
King sees that as a win not only for the nonprofit but also for anyone who wants to give money for NIL.
“Because now boosters or donors see, ‘Hey, my money’s going to good use,’” King said. “I can’t change the portal, but if OU has this type of NIL program when you can earn but you’re also building your brand … I just see a lot of value.”
King and Team NILO have already worked with numerous OU athletes, including Drake Stoops, Gavin Freeman, Grace Lyons and Tiare Jennings.
But Justin Harrington took things to a different level.
“Justin was really the full campaign,” King said.
Harrington was connected to the Oklahoma Council on Economic Education, a nonprofit that helps raise awareness for financial literacy. He read several books that were recorded, produced, then distributed to teachers to help get kids engaged. He made several in-person presentations at schools. He shared his own experiences at entrepreneurial competitions in Ardmore and Edmond.
The OCEE has been so impressed by Harrington’s work that it asked him to speak during its Federal Reserve Student Board of Directors graduation and pinning ceremony in May.
Harrington has particularly enjoyed his interaction with elementary school kids. He was taking pictures and signing autographs after one presentation when he noticed a little boy who was crying.
“Everybody was smiling but him,” Harrington said.
“What’s wrong?” Harrington remembers asking the boy. “We’re having fun.”
“You’re my favorite player,” the boy told him through tears.
Harrington knows that a vast majority of people identify him as a football player. But he hopes his work with OCEE shows he’s about more than how fast he closes on ball carriers or how hard he tackles receivers.
“Your legacy as a regular person will be way longer than you as a football player,” he said. “And I know that for a fact because I watched my grandfather do it. My grandfather never played sports, and he’s a legend.
“His legacy will forever be around.”
‘His heart is as big as gold’
The legacy of helping others wasn’t left only by Harrington’s grandfather.
“We learned it from my grandma,” said Harrington’s dad, Larry. “We learned to help people regardless of the situation, regardless of who you are.”
She would sell food out of her house. If someone could pay for the plate, great. If they couldn’t pay then or couldn’t pay at all, she still gave them food.
Her kids saw that. Her grandkids saw that.
It prompted her grandson Larry to feed any of the neighborhood kids who showed up at his house once he had kids of his own. And it prompted her son, also named Larry, to give away food from his restaurant.
“If you needed a meal in Raleigh, North Carolina, people knew that they could come to Larry’s Southern Kitchen and get a meal,” said Larry Harrington, Justin’s dad, of his father.
“That’s just the way my family is. Justin is the same way. His heart is as big as gold.”
Harrington has been known to cook up food and take it to the locker room for teammates. He’d take their money if they could pay, and if not, well, you know the rest.
Harrington is taking that same spirit into these opportunities with Team NILO. He would likely be doing community service regardless, but the fact he can earn some NIL money in the process? It is allowing him to start building generational wealth that most members of his family haven’t had.
He is even thinking about turning his love of cooking into a business of his own. A nest egg of NIL money could go a long way in that endeavor.
“NIL for me, I want my family to know that I’m comfortable,” he said, “and if I can, on the back end, if I can help them with extra money that I have, it’s straight out my pocket, shirt off my back for anybody in this family.”
Paying it forward is what he learned from so many in his family.
That it would pay off is a bonus.