Todd Wagner is a man with a mission. Yes, as he’ll be the first to admit, he and Mark Cuban captured lightning in a bottle with their sale of Broadcast.com to Yahoo. And, yes, he does live a life that youngsters and grownups fantasize about — jetting to meet up with headline makers, dining with the international set, being married to a gorgeous and charming woman. Why he even confesses that as a child, his household was pretty All-American without fear of neglect, poverty or ignorance.
Perhaps it’s that latter point that caused him to realize the importance of saving today’s youth from a downward spiral and the need for caring and responsible adults to step forward and to make a difference for good. And, of course, it didn’t hurt that he had friends who shared similar feelings, like former California Arnold Schwarzenegger, founder of the After-School All-Stars program. All of this added up to more than, “Gee, I’ll write a check,” from Todd. He doesn’t work that way. Instead he created the Todd Wagner Foundation in 2000 to provide funding for nonprofits in need of support.
Still even that wasn’t enough for the former Akin Gump attorney. Like a devoted preacher, he wanted others to be inspired to personally get involved with money and (wo)manpower.
Sure, Todd could have written a letter to friends and associates or twisted some arms over lunch, but Todd doesn’t do anything the way the average Joe does. Instead he decided to throw a big old fundraising bash, “Change: Making a Difference for our Youth,” to celebrate the 12th anniversary of the foundation. Thanks to his underwriting the May 10th event, 100% of the ticket prices and contributions would be “donated directly to our three charity partners [After-School All-Stars, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and KIPP — Knowledge is Power Program] to help propel them forward and reach even more young people.”
And while Todd was eager to raise funds and awareness for his night, he wasn’t going to pick pockets to do it. For instance, there was to be no silent or live auction. Todd admitted that auctions make him feel uncomfortable and, besides, his guests had already forked out a chunk of change just to be there. No, his next goal was to get hold of their minds, hearts and souls. To do that he was going to use food, faces, facts and fun.
But where to do this. A hotel just wouldn’t do for the “WOW!” factor that Todd wanted. Where else would you find such a venue to impress locals and out-of-towners? Well, where else but Cowboys Stadium.
As for the faces, such famous names as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dan Rather, Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith were dropped, with possible others to be added.
And what about the fun? Well, just dining on the field at Cowboys Stadium ain’t shabby, but Todd wanted folks to party hearty, so he got ZZ Top. Remember, this is Todd.
The top-tier guests arrived for a locker room get-together to rub shoulders, elbows and hands with Todd’s star lineup. As they awaited the VIPs’ arrival, a staging area was set up for official grip-and-grin photos to be taken. Event organizers scurried around with headsets trying to manage the locker room, the reception in the Miller Lite Club, on the field and everywhere else in the Wagner World.
Local favorites Troy and Emmitt were first to arrive. They’ve gotten to be such old hands at the celeb deal that they made everyone feel right at home.
While waiting for others to show up, Emily Eisenhauer looked around, “I really don’t think there’s a women’s restroom in the locker room.” And, Emily, despite the strides women’s lib has made, it’s doubtful there will ever be a need for one!
At 6:45 p.m. broadcast legend/evening Dan Rather moseyed on in and immediately ran into Teri and Scott O’Glee. After chatting a bit, Dan realized that duty called and he headed over to the photo zone. Were the O’Glees old buddies with Dan? Nope, but they were from Austin and had mutual friends.
While Troy, Emmitt and Dan were very accommodating with photos and chats, eyes were still wandering around the room looking for the Terminator. No sign. But wait! Over at that cafe table with the blonde. It looked like. . . could it be? . . . by golly, it was Nicholas “The Notebook” Sparks with his wife Cathy. Should he have been in the meet-and-greet VIP lineup? Heck, no! According to Nicholas, who was just in town a month ago for New Friends New Life, he was just a paying guest like everyone else. Was he just here for the party? Nope, again. He was meeting with Ray Hunt the next day and then for dinner with Todd at Reunion Tower.
At another table were a threesome that looked like just nice guys. It turned out they were from KIPP — Founder Michael Feinberg, Richard Barth and Aaron Brenner up from Houston for the event and to spread the word.
OMG! Who else was just hanging out in the locker room under the star-radar? Near the entrance was a couple that seemed like the kind you’d like to settle back on a Sunday afternoon and watch a football game with. Turns out they might be better to watch a hockey game. They were Darcie and Brett Hull.
Now, the crowd was growing and it was getting a tad bit crowded. A photographer asked Gina Ginsburg which of the Cowboys’ lockers she would like to be shot next to. No problem finding one. But there was a slight problem. The nameplates were at the top of the lockers . . . about two feet higher than Gina. Hey, that’s no problem. Gina just hopped up on the wooden bench in front of the locker for the photo. She invited husband Scott to join her, but he took a pass.
Still no Arnold. Oh, well, there was still the big show to come. Perhaps he would appear on the field.
At 7:19 a line of student mariachi violinists and guitarists paraded in and out of the locker room.
Just 11 minutes later, the event wranglers were starting to show signs of “head ’em up and move ’em out” time. But before they could rustle their herd of guests through the passage to the hallway, a big old traffic jam stopped all motion. It was a bewhiskered, smiling Arnold. Immediately like a queen bee surrounded by drones, he was three-deep in middle-aged guys. Guess it was all the locker room testosterone in the air.
Eventually, the guests made their way to the big reception in the Miller Lite Club, where the partying was showing signs of launching thanks to Holly and Stubbs Davis, Tanya and Pete Foster, Ginger and Kent Porter, and Kandis and Bill Hutchinson.
But the reception was just a waiting room. Soon the guests were ushered on to the field through a drum line complete with Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. Emerging from the dark club, they were a bit blinded by not only the bright lights on the field but also seeing their images on the Jumbotron overhead. One fellow was so busy taking pictures of the Jumbotron with his face on it that another log jam stopped the action.
With very little direction, guests figured out where to head — toward the end zone with stages and tables all set up.
A bit dwarfed by the immense size of the stadium, the party set up seemed cozy. Three stages stood where the goal posts usually were. On either side of the main stage were two mega stars from which fireballs were shot in the air. With her back to the stage and chatting with friends, Lee Bailey said, “I didn’t see them (fireballs), but I felt them.”
A head table that was as long as an 18-wheeler was placed perpendicular to the main stage and surrounded by dozens and dozens of round tables with fiesta salads in place. Beyond the side stages were buffets . . not two, not three, but four. . . with southwest Caesar salad, chef-carved bent buckle smoke house brisket, slow roasted pulled pork, and signature BBQ sauce, roasted chicken enchiladas with house-made sour cream sauce, chipotle grilled chicken with Mexican-style rice, roasted yellow squash, red peppers and zucchini, southern green beans, traditional mac and cheese and jalapeno cornbread muffins with creamery butter. Just beyond were dessert tables with mini-candy bar cupcakes (Snickers, Heath Bar, Almond Joy and Junior Mints), mini-sweet treats (strawberry balsamic macaroons, chocolate raspberry and cappuccino cookie pops), fruit and assorted mini-cookies.
Late arrivals Lynn and Allan McBee and Anne and Steve Stodghill slipped in late. They had been at Tom Hicks’ for the kick-off of the Boots and Bling weekend.
As the 450 guests started making their way to their tables, they were greeted by a spectacular-looking blonde wearing a black Stetson with rhinestone longhorn, a black sleeveless turtleneck and fringe skirt. Was she a Victoria Secret model? Nope. She was Kari Wagner (aka Mrs. Todd Wagner). She graciously posed for photos with guests.
Finally, everyone was seated with some diving into their pre-set salads and others waiting for a “We’re off and running” announcement. Dan opened with some opening jokes. He must have heard from Toastmasters that a joke should be inserted. Uh, Dan must have had the late Andy Rooney write his jokes. Bless his heart. They were so grandfatherly but flat.
Todd then spoke and opened with it’s “just another average Thursday night in Dallas.” He must have had Jon Stewart writers working on his lines. Then he got down to business announcing that thanks to the group gathered, $1.1 million had been raised thanks to their involvement. He shared the idea of holding the event with Kari, who “nudged me to have the event.” He then endeared all by emphasizing, “There is no live auction or anything to pull money out of your pockets.” You could hear blood pressures lowering throughout the crowd. Later Todd admitted that, “When I’m pushed or pressured, I’m not interested.”
Then he revealed facts and numbers that may have raised those same blood pressures:
“I view that we are at a crossroads in this country. To highlight this, I am going to trot out some statistics for us all to chew on during our dinner.
- Youth in the U.S., about 7 out of 10 graduate from high school
- 5 out of 10 minorities graduate from high school
- More than 1/3 drop out in 9th Grade. That’s right let’s say that again, 1/3 never finish 9th grade. What are your job and life prospects then?
- America ranks 12th among nations in percentage of college graduates among our young population.
- America ranks 14th among nations in reading; 17th in science, 25th in math. AND we are supposed to be the world’s superpower (at least for now)?
- 75% of young Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are unable to enlist in the military today because they have either failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record or are physically unfit.
“What does this mean? Well, it certainly puts our future work force at risk—remember, folks can’t get meaningful jobs if they aren’t properly educated. And that high national unemployment rate of over 8-9% is nearly 20% for those without a high school diploma. Puts our global competitiveness at risk. Puts our national security at risk.”
Like attentive St. Marks and Hockadaisies, the audience sat in their places and paid attention because this information was daunting. But just as tummies were starting to grumble, Todd turned things over to Dan who announced, “It’s time to eat.” Like Babe heading to the trough, most guests hit the buffets, but for others it was a perfect time to check it out with the VIP crowd. Anne Stodghill, who had known Don Henley from years past, sidled up to him at the head table and talked about their mutual challenges of home renovations. Bill Hutchinson with an arm around Arnold whipped out his iPhone for a self portrait. Alas, Pat and Emmitt Smith exited quietly into the night. No excuses needed. Everyone in the know knew that the Smiths were chairing the 1992 Dallas Cowboys reunion the next night. Troy chatted it up with guests and fawning wait staff.
With wine flowing, guests enjoyed seconds and thirds until a video was introduced revealing the message of the night. Todd didn’t look all that happy. People were too busy chatting and not paying attention to the video. He made a mental note that a follow-up was needed with copies of the video being sent to guests like mints on a pillow in a fine hotel.
It was then followed by immediate past president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America Roxanne Spillett on the stage to the left and national youth of the year Nicholas Foley on the right. Back to the left stage the KIPP Austin Steel Drum Band performed. Heads shifted to the right stage, where an animated Michael Feinberg and Richard Barth talked about KIPP. From the back of the venue, the After-School All-Stars San Antonio Mariachi Band paraded once again.
They were indeed getting Todd’s message across, but it was getting a bit wearing with heads swiveling like center court at Wimbleton.
In between presentations, emcee Dan sat on a stool to the side of the main stage. It was now time for the grand finale. Dan introduced Arnold, who unlike the other speakers, strode straight from his seat at the head table to the podium. Without notes he told of his admiration for Todd and the success of After-School All-Stars. He was the perfect closing act and Todd looked pleased.
It was now time for recess. . . uh, partying, as ZZ Top took to the stage, living up to their reputation for simply fine music. The audience responded but not with a mosh pit. They didn’t hesitate, but instead of thrashing about with bodies, they saluted with cell phones to send photos back home to friends, families and babysitters with the note, “We’ll be late getting home.”
But it wasn’t as if everyone was so prim and proper. Thank heaven, Kandis Hutchinson popped up on stage for a dance alongside Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard.
While it’s not surprising for guests to send thank-you notes to the host in the days following, a hoarse-throated Todd was in high gear to follow up. Yes, he had raised $1.1M for the three nonprofits, but he still wanted guests to sign up for board positions and to get involved. To gently remind them of his wish, he had copies of the video sent to guests as he and Kari flew off to Cannes and the Prague to take care of other business demands.