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Mark Giordano of Flames wins Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award

Calgary captain recognized by ESPN for program that helps high-needs students

by Lisa Dillman @reallisa / Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES -- Calgary Flames defenseman Mark Giordano was running the gamut of emotions after winning ESPN's Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award on Tuesday.

It still didn't feel real. 

"To be put in the same sentence as Muhammad Ali is pretty surreal," Giordano said in a phone interview following the third annual Sports Humanitarian of the Year Awards presented by ESPN at L.A. LIVE's The Novo. "Coming to this event honestly has been an eye-opener.

"I'm learning all the time with charity work. Being here and seeing all the great work that so many different people I look up to do, it's pretty cool. I'm a little bit starstruck. It's been a great experience."

The award honors an athlete whose continuous, demonstrated leadership created a positive impact on their community through sports. Golfer Ernie Els, winner of four major championships, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and New York Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson were the three other finalists.

"It was nerve-wracking. You can't prepare for things like this," Giordano said. "I've never been part of anything like this. When I was watching the clips that they were showing of Muhammad Ali, it didn't feel real. Seeing the work he did throughout his life and his quotes up on the screen were pretty breathtaking. Then to win the award was unbelievable."

With the award, there is also a grant of $100,000 from ESPN. The Team Giordano program, created in 2014, helps assist 1,900 high-needs students at four schools in Calgary, in conjunction with the Calgary Board of Education. It is funded by Giordano and his wife Lauren, the Calgary Italian Open and the Flames Foundation, and with Pizza 73, ATB Financial and Cardel Homes, the program has donated $300,000 to the schools. 

The program not only provides resources, including computers, supplies and their own "Gio Journals" to track students' progress, but promotes physical fitness, academics, and the positive behaviors that lead to success in life. And the program is working; one school reported that 88 percent of its students are reading at grade level thanks to the literacy resources provided courtesy of Team Giordano. 

"Our goal is to keep growing and keep adding schools if we can," Giordano said. "I'm sure this is going to go a long way. We always get the school board involved because they've been a great help. They'll lead us in the right direction to make the right choice with where this money should be allocated."

Giordano spoke about his wife's impact in their charitable endeavors. She is six months pregnant, and because of the stresses of travel, stayed home with family in Toronto.

"She has a lot to do with our charity and puts in the day- to-day work," he said. "She deserves to be here and deserves to be up there with me for sure."

This has been a team effort by their family in every sense. Giordano said they were mobilized to do more after the birth of their son, Jack.

"We try to get our little guy involved as much as possible already," Giordano said. "He's only 4, but he's been out to a bunch of school visits with us.

"We want to set that example and have something where we can show them what we did and how to get involved. It's all about giving these kids an opportunity that maybe they wouldn't have otherwise. That was our main goal."

So what will he tell his children about this special night? 

"I just hope that I'll be able to show them one day that this is a pretty big accomplishment," Giordano said. "Obviously, it's not what you do charity work for. You don't do it for awards. To be able to show them that we helped others, I think it's going to be pretty cool when I'm older and they're older."

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