For Good: Super Dad steps up for Tampa families

If you’re wondering what prompts a 6-foot-4 man who weighs over 200 pounds to put on a mask and a loud blue spandex outfit and strut around in public, the answer is easy.

What drives Maurice Vernon to be Super Dad is a single memory that is distant, but everlasting.

“The only memory I have of my biological father is him beating my mom,’’ Vernon says. “I can’t remember anything else. If I can help any kid not to have those type of memories, that’s why I do what I do.’’

What Vernon, 40 and a Tampa native, has been doing for three years is trying to make a difference in the lives of fathers and -- by extension -- families. Although Vernon and his wife, Alayna, have four children of their own, they have their eyes set on a larger number. According to research done by the Vernons, there are approximately 24 million fatherless households in America.

“We started looking into the root causes of poverty,’’ Alayna Vernon says. “We saw what was a really big problem in all socio-economic statuses, all races, and all religions is fatherlessness in America. That could be a multitude of things -- a father who is incarcerated, a father who doesn’t even know he’s a father, a family where there is a divorce or a father who is around but doesn’t spend quality time with his kids. There are so many versions of what that absenteeism can look like, but the result is still the same.’’

Alayna Vernon, left, and Melody Johnson, far right, co-founders of JTEP Charity with Maurice Vernon, center, Amber, Dylan, and Aubree.That’s why Maurice Vernon will be slipping into that spandex Super Dad outfit for his next event on March 24 when he leads the 24M Dads 5K March to raise money for the nonprofit that Vernon, his wife Alayna and his mother (Melody Haynes) operate.

“We chose March 24 to represent the 24 million fatherless households,’’ Vernon says.
 
The march will start at 8 a.m. at Tampa’s MacFarlane Park. Before returning to the park, the march will reach its apex at a location that also represents something special to the Vernons. That’s 1932 W. Main Street. That’s where Maurice’s grandfather, Johnnie Lewis, operated a grocery store and shoe-shine shop for many years.

That’s also where the Vernons are about to set up headquarters for their nonprofit -- Joining Together Eliminating Poverty. The Vernons are trying to finish renovations on the building to have it ready for the march and they recently got a big boost when Dynasty Building Solutions installed a new roof at no charge.

Since starting the charity organization in 2016, the Vernons have been operating out of their home and at the Big Top Flea Market. There, the Vernons have run a thrift shop where they provide items for children -- anything from cribs to clothing -- at a minimal cost. They also try to solicit donations in order to try to help provide as many free diapers as possible.

The shop will move into the building and proceeds from the march will help stock the store. The entry fee for the march is $30 and those wishing to participate can register in advance here. After the march, there will be a basketball event at the Martin Luther King Community Recreation Complex in which fathers can play in a tournament and children can participate in free-throw shooting and three-point shooting contests.

But the event isn’t just about raising money and it’s not only for fathers. It’s open to women, boys, and girls of all ages.

“It’s not about race, politics or religion,’’ Maurice Vernon says. “It’s about stepping up for your family and making a difference. If they believe in that, we want them to march with us.’’

Following the march, Vernon will speak to the audience about the importance of having strong families. So will several pastors. 

So will former Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Frank Murphy, who also runs a nonprofit. But that’s not all Murphy and Vernon have in common.

Murphy, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award for community service from former President Barack Obama, first met Vernon when they were football teammates at Garden City Community College in Kansas in 1997.

Vernon, a Jefferson High product who played safety, doesn’t often talk about his football days, but Murphy was only too happy to let out a little secret about his former teammate.

“Maurice was one of the hardest hitters I saw in college and in the NFL,’’ Murphy says. “He would take your head off.’’

Yeah, that same guy is the one running the event. He also runs boot camps for first-time fathers at local hospitals several times a year. He spoke at DaddyCon (a parenting conference for fathers) in Chicago earlier this year. And he hopes to eventually hold marches in all 50 states.

Yet, Vernon once was thrown out of practice for hitting Murphy too hard. So how does a guy who was such a vicious player turn into Super Dad?

“Like I said, Maurice would take your head off,’’ Murphy says. “But he would pick you up and shake your hand. I’m not surprised that he’s doing what he’s doing. As I think back, I can see where this was brewing in him back in college. Maurice is driven by his compassion. He’s already done great things, but he’s going to do even more.’’

Read more articles by Patrick Yasinskas.

Pat Yasinskas is a freelance writer based in Tampa. He has been an award-winning sportswriter at ESPN.com, The Charlotte Observer, and The Tampa Tribune. He also currently freelances for Street & Smith's NFL and College Football preview yearbooks, and several other websites.
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