June 15, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Meet the saint of the Rams’ community outreach: Molly Higgins

On a Sunday afternoon in November 2014, Molly Higgins and the crowd inside the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis prepared to watch pregame introductions before the Rams kicked off against the Oakland Raiders.

Amid gray smoke and blue lights, five Rams players walked out of the dimly lit tunnel with their hands above their heads. The gesture symbolized the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” cries of activists during months-long protests in the streets of nearby Ferguson, Mo., over the police killing of Michael Brown.

After the game, Higgins, the Rams’ vice president for community affairs and engagement, and other Rams executives met with the players, telling them they would not face discipline for their actions. The team stood firm despite swift backlash, including from the St. Louis Police Dept. Higgins informed the players of her expectations.

“You guys have to do work and show love to your community,” Higgins recalled telling them. “It has to be beyond just the ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.’”

The players responded, and weeks later all five participated in a Christmas charity event.

The shooting and subsequent protests opened Higgins’ eyes, she said, to the community’s racial and educational inequity.

When a local school superintendent asked if she could spare an extra game ticket for one of her favorite students, Higgins immediately said yes. That 15-year-old Black student was Kievonn Monger, who would eventually become Higgins’ foster son.

Seven years later, the Rams are firmly entrenched in Los Angeles. The franchise donated nearly $5 million to philanthropic causes in 2020, the most, the team says, in a single season. Higgins’ fingerprints are on most of those efforts.

Following a year marked by tragic incidents similar to one that brought her and Monger together, she uses him as inspiration.

“Social justice is the fight for equality and providing access, and I think so often that people in our Black and brown communities don’t have that access,” Higgins said. “I know that personally because I’ve lived it through Kievonn.”

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Higgins’ reputation stretches beyond the team and others with whom she works. In August, she was named to the Sports Business Journal’s 2020 class of “Game Changers: Women in Sports Business.”

Her journey to a team leadership role in the NFL’s second-largest market started on a modest farm in Emmetsburg, Iowa, a rural town with a population of about 3,800.

Higgins gravitated to sports along with her two brothers and many cousins. She mowed grass to form baseball-field lines, and hit balls over a storage shed for home runs. She also was inspired by her late grandmother, Jeanne, who was eulogized as a “local Mother Theresa,” Higgins said.

Higgins dreamed of working in public relations for the Denver Broncos, her older brother’s favorite team. After graduating from Northern Iowa in 1999, Higgins worked for a computer software company in St. Louis before joining the Rams as a corporate-communications intern.

Higgins quickly ascended to become head of the corporate communications and community outreach department in 2007. When Kevin Demoff arrived as chief operating officer two years later, he promoted her to a vice-president role.

“I was immediately blown away with how empathic she was, how intelligent she was and how much the staff relied on her,” Demoff said.

Molly Higgins is greeted at training camp in Irvine.

(Jeff Lewis / Rams)

In 2010, the Rams were the first sports team to be named “St. Louis Philanthropic Organization of the Year.”

Four years later, those community relationships were tested, and Monger entered Higgins’ life because of it.

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Monger grew up in Jennings, Mo., a predominantly Black city about four miles from Ferguson where nearly one in five people lives below the poverty line, according to census data.

Monger considered Michael Brown an acquaintance and remembers occasionally playing pickup basketball games together.

In 2014, Monger was a high school freshman living with a close friend’s family, sharing a two-bedroom apartment with eight others.

The congested situation was better than the alternative. With his biological family, he lived a turbulent lifestyle in a single-parent household. One day, Monger packed a bag, got on his bike and ran away, eventually transitioning into the foster-care system before living with his friend.

Monger caught the superintendent’s attention by leading a peaceful demonstration after Brown’s death.

He vividly remembers the day he met Higgins. Monger entered a luxury suite at the Rams’ stadium and experienced the view, the field access and the food offerings. He chuckles when recounting how the superintendent pulled him aside to meet Higgins.

“I was having the time of my life and she is introducing me to this dark-haired white woman,” said Monger, now 21. “In my head I was like, ‘Can I get back to watching the game?’”

Keivonn Monger showcases a tattoo he received in 2018 of the names of his two foster parents.

Keivonn Monger showcases a tattoo he received in 2018 of the names of his two foster parents.

(Family photo)

Still, Monger was respectful. Higgins enjoyed the short conversation, saying he was “sharp” and “his smile could light up the entire sideline.”

After learning of his tumultuous home situation, she wanted to help. She gave him Christmas gifts, and later invited him to a family Christmas party.

Within months, as the relationship grew, Higgins invited Monger to move into the home she shared with her longtime girlfriend, whom she married in 2016, a year after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage.

“I wasn’t used to structure,” Monger said. “ I wasn’t used to having my own room, my own bed. It made me so much better.”

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Monger soon needed to change schools because Higgins and her partner lived in a different district.

That involved changing legal guardianship and led to a tense meeting between Monger, the couple, Monger’s biological mother and the school director.

But after the documentation was signed, doubt creeped into Monger’s head. He soon questioned the couple’s intentions, wondering why they went to such great lengths for someone of no relation. He “became a little rebellious,” Monger said, which included talking back to teachers to gauge his foster parents’ commitment.

“I wanted them to prove to me that they loved me,” Monger said. “I wanted to know that they were in it for the long run, and as soon as some trouble started, they weren’t going to drop me off back in the ‘hood.’

“Through it all, their love never wavered.”

When Higgins and her wife relocated to Los Angeles with the Rams in 2016, Monger chose to stay, moving in with a family member and returning to his original high school. After graduating, he enrolled in the Marine Corps.

“I think one of the regrets is not getting him earlier in life,” Higgins said.

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After the death of George Floyd in Minnesota last May and the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin in August, Higgins immediately thought of Monger.

“I see it through the eyes of a mother,” she said as her voice cracked and she began sniffling. “There’s been a lot of tears.”

She heard similar frustrations among players in group and one-on-one conversations. Her mission then, she said, was to channel those emotions into concrete actions.

During the Rams’ relocation to Los Angeles, Demoff hired additional staff to handle corporate communications, allowing Higgins to focus solely on community outreach. She spent the first year traversing the 405 between the Rams’ Agoura Hills office and the South Los Angeles region connecting with potential partners.

Her involvement led the Rams to financially sponsor the “Watts Rams — an LAPD-coached youth football program. In 2017, she helped coordinate partnering with the LBGTQ community to help sponsor Venice Pride, a celebration of diversity. In 2018, before a “Monday Night Football” game against the Kansas City Chiefs, she organized ceremonies to honor victims of a mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, and Southern California wildfires. She also assisted with several players’ charity events.

“She makes dreams come true,” said LAPD officer Zarren Thompson, one of the Watts Rams coaches.

In the wake of last summer’s unrest, and NFL players’ public comments about it, Rams players sought to do more regarding social justice. Higgins challenged them to think beyond police brutality, and look at systemic issues, such as education inequality and homelessness. She promised to use her network to connect players with their interests.

“I get inspired by the passion she shows and her ability and her leadership,” said left tackle Andrew Whitworth, the team’s nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. “It’s really just her saying, ‘Hey, if there is something a player wants to do, if there’s something they feel they want to pull off, we will dive in as far as we have to go to make it happen.’”

Higgins set up five-minute videoconferences with partner organizations to share their mission to Rams players, who responded by donating a total of $750,000 to 25 local nonprofits. Higgins also worked individually with players.

She connected quarterback Jared Goff with the Inglewood Unified School District. After three meetings with district officials, Goff provided 1,000 backpacks to students, virtually read to students during classes and made financial donations. Goff said it was “the most excited” he had been for anything he’s done off the field, and this week he told The Times’ Sam Farmer that despite being traded, his commitment to the kids won’t end.

“Their follow through was outstanding, and I never felt that it was a pitch, I thought it was genuine,” said Erika Torres, county administrator for the school district. “I felt their approach was honest and I felt their heart was in it.”

Monger experienced Higgins’ commitment first-hand.

After finishing his military service, he returned to the St. Louis area and is now pursuing a teaching certificate. He visited Los Angeles frequently before the pandemic, and hopes to again once it subsides. His room in Higgins’ Playa Vista home is waiting for him.

“For her to go to L.A. and do what she’s done, I think it’s amazing,” Monger said. “She’s giving me some really big shoes to fill.”