“Unlikely bedfellows.”

That’s how Jim Ritterhoff, executive director of Force Blue, described the coming together of military veterans, the National Football League (NFL), coral scientists, government and corporate entities, all collaborating to benefit Florida’s coral reef. 

Force Blue, which helped organize the project, retrains and redeploys former special operations veterans and military-trained combat divers to work alongside scientists and environmentalists on marine conservation missions. The veterans act as a “highly skilled workforce” to accomplish difficult and critical scientific work, in return gaining “a new mission and a sense of continued service” in fighting for the planet, Ritterhoff explained. 

Last year, for the 2020 Super Bowl LIV in Miami, Force Blue divers joined scientists from The Florida Aquarium (FLAQ) and the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science to plant 100 endangered staghorn corals in Biscayne Bay, off Miami. The symbolic project celebrated the NFL’s 100th season last year.

The ocean-focused project was a first for the NFL. 

“NFL Green had never worked on an underwater environmental project until beginning work on coral restoration in Florida. Doing so allowed us to bring together the most diverse group of partners we’ve ever worked with,” said Susan Groh, Associate Director for NFL Green, the NFL’s environmental and sustainability wing.

The project expanded throughout the year into “100 Yards of Hope,” a multi-year coral restoration project aimed at reseeding a football field-sized area off Biscayne Bay with multiple species of endangered corals. The hope is to turn the tide for Florida’s iconic reef and to drive even more awareness about its plight. 

The end zones and center of the football field-sized reef were placed in fall 2020, followed by divers planting thousands of staghorn and mountainous star corals from FLAQ, the Rosenstiel School, SECORE International and Frost Science, FLAQ Senior Vice President of Conservation Debborah Luke told the Keys Weekly.

“This critically important project is helping to restore Florida’s Coral Reef, the third-largest barrier reef in the world, which is in crisis,” Luke said.

Now, as a capstone to NFL Green Week, which precedes each year’s Super Bowl and serves as a way to galvanize community greening efforts in the host city, the team planted 150 elkhorn corals, another threatened coral species, in the field. The Rosenstiel School provided 55 of the corals in celebration of Super Bowl 55. FLAQ provided the remaining corals. A final planting of massive brain and star corals in the spring will complete 100 Yards of Hope, the NFL’s Groh said.

“100 Yards of Hope is a symbol of what passionate, hopeful individuals can accomplish when working towards a shared vision,” said Dalton Hesley, a senior research associate at the Rosenstiel School, whose team spearheaded restoration efforts. “What started as a celebration of the NFL’s 100th season has transformed into a fight for the future of our coral reefs.”

He added, “Coral restoration is a tremendous tool in the fight for Florida’s Coral Reef as it helps recover degraded coral populations and safeguard the ecological services they provide.”

So, what are these benefits?

Coral reefs support one out of every four marine species and act as critical nursery grounds, Groh explained. They also reduce storm and wave energy, protecting our coastlines, lives and livelihoods. 

As we know well in the Florida Keys, Florida’s Coral Reef also underpins our entire economy and way of life. Many view saving it as a way to also save ourselves and our future.

“Every year coral reefs pump $3.4 billion into the U.S. economy through jobs, tourism, seafood, even the medicines we take,” Groh said. “But coral reefs are under threat by a changing climate, pollution and warmer, more acidic oceans, and they won’t survive without significant restoration and conservation efforts.”

FLAQ’s Luke agreed, saying, “Over 90% of [the reef’s] corals have died… restoration of Florida’s Coral Reef is imperative if we are to continue reaping [its] benefits.”

The unexpected collaboration has also had an unforeseen, positive impact by getting an unlikely crowd involved.

Force Blue’s Ritterhoff explained that the touchdown in these efforts is using Navy SEALS and the NFL, people you don’t traditionally see talking about conservation, to reach an audience who wouldn’t necessarily pay attention to coral reef scientists. 

“People listen because these guys are their heroes,” he told the Keys Weekly. “We have to reach beyond the choir in marine conservation. We have to get more people involved.”

Most importantly, he noted, “we don’t care if you get on board from the right side or the left side; we’re on the same boat. That’s what 100 Yards of Hope is all about. It’s about bringing together people from all walks of life, different political aisles, life experiences, and making them aware of a problem that exists. Cooperating and coming together to be a solution. That is a symbol of hope.”

The collaboration is bringing new hope to the coral restoration effort. ZACH RANSOM/Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science