The X’s and O’s with Adam Richelieu ’13

The X’s and O’s with Adam Richelieu ’13

For many involved with the National Football League, the Super Bowl marks the end of the work season. For Adam Richelieu ’13, it’s the eve of his busiest time of the year.

As the salary cap and contract manager for the NFL Players’ Association (NFLPA), he is an invaluable resource for thousands of athletes negotiating new contracts. The minute the confetti hits the turf and the Lombardi trophy is handed over, Richelieu gets to work.

“One of the big misconceptions is that people tend to think that in-season is the craziest time, but that’s probably the least busy time of the year for me because all the contracts are done at that point,” said Richelieu.

Richelieu’s job is to ensure that every player in the NFL gets as much compensation for their talents and effort as they can. He compares it to the kind of work financial or legal consultants do, except that it involves some of the biggest sports stars in the world.

By analyzing player markets and stat incentives, he and his team provide agents of NFL players with as much information as possible to help them better negotiate contracts with their respective teams. When a big-name quarterback or wide receiver gets a new contract, it affects all the others in the league.

“It’s essentially making sure that I’m helping both the player and his agent maximize his ‘take-home’ once his career is over and everything is all said and done.”

Adam Richelieu '13
Adam Richelieu ’13 

The son of a civil rights attorney, Richelieu had considered entering the legal field after Auburn. After graduating with a degree in political science and government, he began studying for the LSAT and interned at a legal nonprofit office. At the same time, he took a part-time job with Auburn Athletics as an event manager.

“It became one of those things where I started realizing I was not enjoying myself at the legal internship and having the time of my life working with athletics, especially on football game days,” recalls Richelieu. The highlight of it all was standing next to the pylon where Chris Davis scored the ‘Kick-Six’ touchdown. “That completely solidified things for me. That night, I made up my mind that football was my path while walking past Toomer’s Corner. I called my parents the next day and said I was going the sports route.”

A native of Alexandria, Va., Richelieu was elated to be accepted by his first choice for grad school at George Washington University and return to his home region. Part of the program’s appeal was it afforded the opportunity to work at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where he compiled logistical or statistical pieces of information as an Olympic Games Knowledge Management data collector. The job afforded him the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see swimmer Michael Phelps’s final race, an experience he compares only to the Kick-Six.

Through his GW program advisor Lisa Neirotti, Richelieu landed an internship with the Washington Redskins as a marketing intern. Though he knew he wanted to do salary cap work someday, it was his first step toward a dream he had long sought. But it was an unexpected opportunity that helped him the most.

Two weeks into his internship, he learned a salary cap intern took a job as an associate at a law firm and would not be returning; suddenly, they had an open position right down the hall. He approached the Redskins Vice President of Football Operations and General Counsel Eric Schaffer about working both internships since he was already there every day of the week. Schaffer said yes. A year and a half later, he was at the NFLPA.

Richelieu in Rio
Richelieu at the 2016 Rio Olympics 

In some ways, Richelieu’s work mirrors his father’s civil rights legal career in the end after all. The NFL, despite being entertainment, is still a business, and despite the apparent or intrinsic value of each player, each club tries strike bargain deals with everyone. Factor in the salary cap and the incentive to give every player a maximum-value contract is significantly lower.

Where Richelieu can help level the playing field is through helping agents negotiate better contracts for their players. Whenever one position player signs a better deal, another can use it to enhance the argument for their own contract.

“Each player definitely affects the others and the market as a whole, which is why I try to keep my eye on as many negotiations as possible and help where needed,” he said. “The clubs and I tend to play this fun little game of chess where they look for the weak point, the contract that will help set the market as low as possible. I’m always trying to ensure that the floor is as high as possible.”

Building relationships with NFL executives like Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Director of Football Operations Mike Greenberg, the Pittsburgh Steeler’s VP of Football and Business Administration Omar Khan, San Francisco 49er’s Director of Football Administration and Analytics Brian Hampton and Atlanta Falcon’s Director of Football Operations Nick Polk has been an invaluable resource not only for understanding the field better, but also in guiding his own career.

Detroit Lions Vice President of Football Administration Mike Disner, in particular, became a kind of mentor for him at the beginning of his NFLPA career. Around the time when Disner made the Forbes Magazine “30 Under 30,” Richelieu was looking to learn as much as he could about the industry.

Never one to seek the spotlight, he had no idea that he himself would be selected for the 2020 “30 Under 30” list but sees it as a sign that following his passion for sports has him in the right direction.

“You set a lot of goals for yourself as a kid — one day you think you’re going to be a rock star, the other day you want to be the next Bill Gates or president,” said Richelieu. “I always wanted to work in football.”

One of Richelieu’s most lasting Auburn memories actually began in a moment of panic. While driving back from his legal internship in Montgomery, coasting on fumes into a gas station, he realized he was missing his wallet at the worst possible moment. He was fretting at the gas pump in his business clothes as an elderly woman in a beat-up car pulled in behind him. He’ll never forget what happened next.

“She sees I have problem, walks up and asks what’s wrong. I said I’m out of gas, don’t have my wallet and have to call someone to come help me. She hands me a $20 and says, “get yourself home.” He refused at first, but the woman insisted. She told him she had a granddaughter attending Auburn, and if she was ever in a similar situation, she hoped someone would do the same for her. He wanted to get her contact info so he could reimburse her, but she refused.

“She basically forced the bill in my hand, walked away and said, ‘War Eagle and good luck,’ he said. “That story has really stuck with me all these years. It speaks volumes about the Auburn family as a whole.” Though his passion for Auburn has never been stronger, Richelieu hasn’t been able to return to the Plains since he left. The last time he planned to come down, he was promoted to a new position at the NFLPA. Not the best time to take a week off. But now he has a new incentive to return.

Richelieu was recently engaged to his fiancé Brigid, who has never been to an SEC home game. He’s hoping her first experience can be the Auburn-Arkansas game this fall.

For all of his proximity to the game’s biggest stage, the NFL Players’ Association’s commitment to impartiality has increased his passion for the college game like never before.

“I’ve funneled all my NFL fandom back to Auburn,” he laughed. “My fall Saturdays are sacred to me now.”

Bringing a Legacy to Life: Lauren Duke Patterson ’11

Bringing a Legacy to Life: Lauren Duke Patterson ’11

Auburn women have left their mark across campus in more ways than one. On Sept. 27, 2019, they left a permanent one in the form of a monument commemorating the 125th Anniversary of Auburn Women, a campaign recognizing the first three women students and the legacy women have had on the school.

A gift from alumni Melanie and Paul Barstad to honor Melanie’s parents, James and Juanita Lee Whatley, the design of the statue itself was adapted from the original 125th icon used throughout campus. What initially began as a logo tying the other parts of the 125th Anniversary brand together came to represent the achievements of Auburn women throughout history.

Though plans were in place as early as spring 2017 to dedicate a monument to Auburn women on campus, the design team hired from Advent by the Auburn Alumni Association Office of Development went through dozens of ideas on what it should look like. It wasn’t until Advent Design Director Lauren Duke Patterson ’11 saw the logo on the cover of the Fall 2017 issue of Auburn Magazine that she knew she had found the right inspiration.

“We had been going through three rounds [of designs], we were on our final round with the committee and the timing was perfect — I got the alumni magazine in the mail, and it was exactly what the statue needed to be,” said Patterson. “The elements in the story helped me present the idea back to the committee as a way we could represent all women.”

Patterson’s connections to Auburn run deeper than the monument, though. Her father, Roger Duke, raised her into the Auburn Family as soon as she could walk. “I even had the whole little cheerleader outfit and everything.”

Patterson attended Georgia Tech for her undergrad degree, but came to Auburn to earn her MBA. Besides the thrill of Cam Newton’s journey to the 2010 National Championship, Patterson counts winning the CASE Senior Capstone competition among her favorite Auburn memories.

That, and meeting her husband, Sam Patterson ’12. The two were both completing their masters at the time and went on their first date the night of Super Bowl LXIV. Sam proposed while the two were at Topsail Hill State Park in Florida and the two were married in 2014.

Renderings of projects Lauren Patterson worked on with Advent for Auburn University

Patterson remained in Auburn after graduating, working for the Auburn Athletic Department and at CopyCat, which is how she first learned about Advent.

“We were printing the boards for the indoor practice facility as they were remodeling it, building and finishing it. I saw Advent’s logo on it, and I found out about them through their renders,” said Patterson.

Her first job with Advent was still in Auburn designing the weight room in the athletic center, followed by the Harbert Family Recruiting Center, the new lobby in the Lowder College of Business and Horton-Hardgrave Hall. Seven years later Patterson is still with Advent, excited to handle whatever challenge walks through their doors. As design director, Patterson leads a team of designers, artists and builders to understand the spirit and character of a client or project, then turn their inspiration into real-life elements.

“You first have to understand the client, understand the story, then do what we call ‘story mining’ — talking, listening and showing empathy for the client,” said Patterson. “We want to hear what the message is, what the issues are with the space or the new space, what they’re trying to achieve, then we take that and strategize through sketches.”

Once they’ve determined the right direction for the client, the Advent team moves into realism-modeling and fabrication.

For the 125th Anniversary of Auburn Women project, Patterson brought on several Auburn alumni to help turn the cover design into the massive six-foot-tall statue and base. They extruded the design in 3D-design software SketchUp to determine the scale. The digital designs were sent to sculptor Chris George founder of Buffalo, Wyoming-based Frontier Iron Works, so that the metal strips could be welded together. Finally, the statue was finished with a dark bronze patina to match with the other sculptures on campus. After walking around campus for so many years, having her own contribution there is still surreal for Patterson.

“It was fun to be at the beginning, and then to see it happen is pretty amazing. It’s pretty awesome because it is a pretty unique piece of art on Auburn’s campus that people will remember and engage with,” she said.

Patterson was unable to attend the monument’s formal dedication ceremony, but for a good reason — her son Duke was born in late July. He already has an Auburn outfit of his own.

“Anytime I get to work on a project for Auburn it means a lot to me, my family and all of our friends from “Section 50” — that’s the seats we had in Jordan-Hare,” said Patterson. “I was happy that we were able to make it work and happy that it looks good, and I think the reactions I’ve heard from the Auburn Family is that they love it.”

Jim Morton ’91: Out in the Wild with “Naked & Afraid”

Jim Morton ’91: Out in the Wild with “Naked & Afraid”

Jim Morton ’91 grew up spending time in the Alabama woods with his dad, forestry major James Morton ’61, never knowing it would prepare him for his future career as a producer of hit reality show “Naked and Afraid.”

Morton says he was Auburn-bound from birth — “Ever since I was a little kid, Auburn was the place. I wanted to go there; it was home.”

Bouncing around between majors throughout his time at Auburn, Morton finally found his calling in radio and TV production classes. “I’m a storyteller at heart, and from that moment on, I was like, ‘this is what I want to do.’”

Before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and minors in psychology and business, Morton completed an internship at CNN. He worked his way up the ladder in the video journalist program, doing everything from tape editing to producing – and even sports casting.

Taking place at the outbreak of the first Gulf War, his experience in the control room during those tense times convinced Morton he’d made the right career choice.

“I fell in love with fast-paced, live TV. Talk about an adrenaline rush — you have to learn everything you can in 30 seconds, which is a lot more than you think.” After his internship, Morton moved to L.A. and began his career as a freelance producer. His first job was with production company Renegade83, never anticipating it would lead him to the biggest show in his career: “Naked and Afraid.”

Life as a freelance producer landed Morton producing shows of all kinds, toughing through some duds simply for the paycheck, but also getting to do shows he loved, like “The Benefactor” with Mark Cuban and “Only in America” with Larry the Cable Guy. He worked hard and travelled often so much that, once, he had to call the front desk at his hotel to ask what city he was in. One day Renegade83 approached Morton about producing “Naked and Afraid,” and although still unsure, he gave it a shot.

After rushing a contestant on the brink of death to the hospital, eyes rolling in the back of her head, he told his wife, “if I do three seasons of this, it’ll be a miracle.” Yet he is still here, several years later, getting ready for another season.

Although surrounded by nudity for weeks at a time, Morton and his crew find it easy to stay professional to keep contestants comfortable. “To me, they might as well be wearing a flesh-colored jumpsuit,” he said, “We notice the bug bites more than anything.” Ironically, Morton say the weirdest part for him is actually seeing what the cast members where in real life after the show ends.

Years on the show have taken Morton to beautiful places across the globe like Brazil, Ecuador, Belize and Panama. He even filmed a season on his family’s land in Alabama. Morton’s favorite location — also the most desolate — was Guyana, where the crew stayed in a ranch in one room without hot water or power. “It was the most remote place I’ve ever been, and it was pretty miserable, but we had a ball – we loved it.”

During his travels, Morton has seen cast and crew members with deadly bug and snake bites, and was himself once bitten by a scorpion in his sleep. He’s also eaten some unusual things – termites and ants that taste like lemons, grub worms, even iguana — a delicacy in Guyana.

He’s also met some incredible people with amazing stories, like Diego, a local expert who escaped imprisonment from rebel soldiers while in the Colombian Army and dedicated his life to jungle survival. “The people you meet are what make it really special,” he said.

Much of what Morton does isn’t in the typical job description of a producer, like testing safe evacuation routes for the cast by hiking miles and pedaling across treacherous waters. Just getting to and from the set every day is a workout; he loses an average of 20 pounds per season.

The hardest part of his job isn’t the tiresome hiking or constant heat and bugs, Morton said. It’s watching contestants make mistakes, like drinking questionable water, and not being able to help them. The one thing he can do is take on the role of coach and cheerleader, “I can’t see them, or give them water, but I can give them encouragement and make the believe that they’re going to make it.” Morton finds inspiration from the book “Lone Survivor” to tell them to make it through the day or the hour rather than looking ahead to the pain.

“The highs are super high, and the lows are super low, but I remind them they’ll get a little victory eventually.”

While his job is difficult at times, the crew makes every second of it worth it. “The people that work on the show are like a big family – we love working together and everybody gets along, because you have to in such a weird situation. It’s such an incredible group of people, and they’re really dedicated to what they do.”

Throughout his travels, Morton gained a newfound appreciation for the little things in life like air conditioning and fresh water, but most of all – not having to eat rice on a daily basis. “My wife will ask me what I want to eat, and I always say, ‘Anything but rice. No rice,’” he said. The crew eats so much rice, they even joked about making a t-shirt with “Hope you like rice” on the back.

More than happy with where he is now, Morton certainly didn’t expect to be where he is today facing the dangers of nature. “Being in the woods with my dad my whole life kind of prepared me for it. Everywhere we go is hot and humid like Alabama in the summertime, with bugs and venomous snakes.” His love for Alabama brought him all the way back home to Auburn last January. “L.A. just wasn’t for me; I’m a guy from Alabama, you know,” he laughed. Morton enjoys walking around downtown Auburn with his wife by his side and taking in the town he holds so many memories of.

With little time to relax, Morton is already filming for the next season of “Naked and Afraid” in Africa. “This is my first time [going to Africa] and I’m so excited,” he said. While the specific location can’t be disclosed until after filming, Morton said that there will be armed rangers to protect them from the wild animals of Africa.

Morton always wears some Auburn clothing or hat while filming and gets “War Eagle” from people across the globe, like Colombia and Panama. With his crew by his side, the challenges of the wild won’t stop him from filming anytime soon.

“There are times when its absolutely miserable – but you have your friends, you’re all suffering together, and you make the most out of it.”

Kelsey Davis ’14: Uncovering Corruption, Achieving a Dream

Kelsey Davis ’14: Uncovering Corruption, Achieving a Dream

When Kelsey Davis ’14 was editor of The Plainsman, she and a friend who was the editor at the student newspaper at Ole Miss would talk ad nauseam about how badly Alabama and Mississippi needed a Texas Tribune-like news source to rigorously cover public policy in a way the states needed and deserved.

“At that time, it was a total pie-in-the-sky fantasy,” said Davis.

A few years later, that pie-in-the-sky fantasy became a reality in the form of Mississippi Today. Since joining the non-profit news source, Davis has covered education policy and the severe teacher shortage in the Mississippi Delta, which she likened to the Alabama Black Belt because of its racial and socioeconomic demographics.

“I’m not just saying this because they employ me, it’s really awesome. We don’t have a print product, we’re all online. It’s a huge shift in how journalism has been done and taught because journalism has been so deadline driven, you can become such a deadline junkie.”

Much different than any reporting gig she’s had in the past, Davis has a more flexible schedule to do deeply analytical investigative reporting on the Mississippi education system, including a three-part series on the teacher shortage that took a year to complete. Of course, Davis worked on other stories during that year, but she said it feels extremely fulfilling to shed light on a teacher shortage that left some students without an English teacher for all of high school.

In retrospect, journalism seems to be a natural fit for Davis, but she really didn’t understand what journalism was when she picked a major at Camp War Eagle.

“I remember sitting on the front porch of Cater Hall; they gave everyone a form and told us to check what we wanted our major to be. It was like ‘okay, check the box and decide the trajectory of your life.’”

She had no interest in studying English or going into teaching, so journalism seemed like one of the only ways to turn her passion for writing into a career. But it never really clicked for Davis until she had to write a paper on “The Elements of Journalism.”

“I stayed up all night reading the book and writing the paper, and then I was like, ‘oh, that’s what this is about.’ The whole way it was explained to me made me fall in love with it.”

From there, Davis started working in the intrigue section at The Plainsman, essentially giving her the license to write about whatever “intrigued” her any given week. But when she became editor-in-chief, her interests shifted to hard news and investigative journalism.

“I was like a full-on addict and never really wanted to do anything else. Once I got introduce to it and figured out what it was, it just felt like the right fit for me. Working for and being editor of The Plainsman is the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done so far.”

Davis has a great deal of respect for daily reporters, but it’s just not for her. She still can churn out two or three stories a day like she was doing at The Montgomery Advertiser, but her best work comes when she has the time to deeply investigate issues.

The atypical work schedule at Mississippi Today also affords Davis and her reporting partner the time to implement innovative projects, such as “Public Newsroom,” where reporters host members of the public to bring different perspectives to their coverage.

“Journalism has a history of unfairly covering communities, sometimes a very malicious way, especially during the Civil Rights Movement. We have this phrase in journalism that you need to give voice to the voiceless, but the problem is those people were never voiceless, we just quit listening to them. It’s more about us learning to re-listen.”

From discovering her calling to making life-long friends, The Plainsman in many ways defined Davis’ college experience. It was incredibly difficult for her to step away because of how much the student newspaper had become a part of her identity, and the first few years were difficult to find her niche in the field of journalism.But working at Mississippi Today has fed that passion that she developed as a young student journalist.

“I feel like the ideal version of journalism is taught in universities, and we’re pretty close to that here. I’m getting to do the ideal job with journalistic integrity, caliber and quality of work.”

Casey Wright ’16: Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

Casey Wright ’16: Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

Casey Wright ’16, of Birmingham, switched majors to a degree in interdisciplinary studies after she realized her true passions following a tragedy while at Auburn. She is now the development coordinator at the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, working to end the violent cycle of poverty in the state.

Auburn Magazine: What was your pre-Auburn life like, and why did you pick Auburn?

Casey Wright: My mom is an Alabama alumna, and my dad’s entire family are big Auburn fans. My grandfather, my dad and my aunt all went to Auburn. But I think if you ask anyone either Tuscaloosa, Alabama, or Auburn, Alabama, there’s really no comparison. My younger sisters are twins, and they’ll be in the class of 2020 at Auburn, too.

Ultimately, when I got to school, what I wanted to do with my major was just help people. I started out in education and tried to figure out what I wanted to do; eventually it led to the nonprofit sector, working with and helping people that way.

AM: You were able to find your passion in nonprofit work during your time at Auburn?

CW: It’s funny. I started in education and thought I wanted to work with kids and help people that way. Late in my sophomore year, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Life as I knew it kind of fell off, so I moved home and took a little time off. She passed away in 2015; when something like that happens, you realize your priorities. I stepped back from the picture, and while it wasn’t the best circumstances, it did give me time off of school to really evaluate what my priorities were and how I could make that a career.

I had some great advisors and professors who helped me identify different minors and turn that into a major through an interdisciplinary studies degree, which is ultimately what I graduated in. I think it’s one of Auburn’s hidden gems. I was able to get three different minors in three different colleges. I feel like it’s a very diverse major that I made into my own.

AM: What was the transition like when you switched majors?

CW: Birmingham is a very benevolent city, so I was able to get in touch with a few people here, for my capstone project and that turned into an internship with Woodlawn Foundation. Woodlawn Foundation’s mission is to revitalize a very low-income community in Birmingham through housing, education and healthcare, which are three areas of life that vulnerable populations have virtually no access to. Working with Woodlawn Foundation opened my eyes to all the different challenges low-income populations face. I went home everyday and felt like I was making a difference.

After I graduated, I went to work for the Floyd Healthcare Foundation in Rome, Georgia. part of a nonprofit hospital. We were working on how low-income populations could break the cycle of diabetes, or working with people on Medicare and Medicaid and getting them durable medical equipment, like walkers or wheelchairs.

After that, I moved on to Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA), which I’ve been at for a little over a month. PARCA is the only free-standing public research institutions in the state of Alabama and they’ve been around for over 30 years. We measure quality of life, education and work-force development, as well as state and local government initiatives. Public education is not great here in the state. You also have prison systems, which could also stand to improve. It’s interesting learning about where Alabama can improve and how those improvements will affect not just low-income small communities, but the state as a whole.

The cycle of poverty is very cruel. It takes a village to get people out of that and show them the potential for what’s there. I’m very grateful that I’ve been led to this area and the path that’s gotten me here. If you look at it in the past 10 years, nonprofits have had a boom.

AM: What does your normal day look like as development coordinator?

CW: Ultimately, development coordinator is a fancy word for fundraising, but here at PARCA, that looks a little different. Part of what I’m doing is working with our researcher and project management, because my goal is to raise money through grants or fundraisers or individual donations. We want to raise more money, so we can conduct research for organization or cities around the state who don’t have the funding or the resources to do figure out how to solve problems. Traditionally, that’s the Black Belt area.

I was familiar with some communities in Alabama, but there have been other areas of the state that I’ve been just blown away with how good they are, and how much they have to offer, and how others around the state could benefit from partnering with them or looking at how they do things.

A few months ago, I was unaware of this organization and all the work they are doing. Now that I’m a part of it, I just want to share it with people, because I think if people aren’t aware that our public schools are failing, they’re not going to improve because no one wants to take action.

AM: What’s been the most rewarding part of the jobs you’ve had?

CW: Connecting people who never knew we had 164 units of affordable housing for homeless women and children right here in Birmingham. It’s been very rewarding to connect to those resources they need to get their lives back on track for themselves, for their children, for their children’s children.

AM: Was there a specific moment in your time since college that you realized you chose the right path?

CW: After my first few weeks with Woodlawn Foundation I was happy, and I was doing what I wanted to do. I felt like I could never get worn out or tired of this.

Jason Howk ’00: U.S. Veteran Promotes Understanding of Islam

Jason Howk ’00: U.S. Veteran Promotes Understanding of Islam

When Jason Howk ’00 retired from the military, all he wanted to do was go fishing.

But when he was asked to speak at a local library about his two tours in Afghanistan, all 30 minutes of the question-and-answer segment centered around his understanding of Islam. He was asked to come speak at the library again, this time just about the religion. Then he was asked to speak by another group. Then another. And another.

Shortly after retirement, Howk became one of the most notable Christian-American experts on Islam and the Quran in the world. Since, he’s taught college-level courses, written an award-winning book and even tempered the rhetoric in a speech President Donald Trump gave to a collection of 55 Muslim-majority nations.

Prior to attending Auburn, Howk spent time in the United Arab Emirates training with special forces. But his understanding of Islamic culture and history didn’t come until he was recruited by Gen. Karl Eikenberry to serve in Afghanistan after 9/11. Essentially, they were assisting the Afghani government in building an army from scratch.

“It makes you think of the time of George Washington at Valley Forge,” Howk said. “There was no army, there was no infrastructure – there was nothing. That was a fascinating assignment. I got to learn more in that year than I ever did in my whole life.”

Working with the president of Afghanistan, generals, diplomats and representatives from the United Nations, the year was extremely transformative for Howk. Totally immersed, he lived with Muslims, ate their food and gained an intimate understanding of the culture.

“As a Baptist kid from Vermont and Florida, that wasn’t something that was normal. You don’t just run into somebody who’s Muslim. That really helped me to learn a lot about the religion and culture – the similarities, the differences. You walk away from it with a better understanding of it and a lot of friends in Afghanistan.”

After leaving in 2003, Howk went to graduate school to study Arabic and Farsi. He earned a master’s degree in Middle East studies and South Asia studies before Gen. Stanley McChrystal recruited Howk back to Afghanistan for a year to initiate a reintegration process for a peace plan and help form a review for President Barack Obama.

“I’m considered a ‘half-ghan,’ he said with a laugh. “It’s when you’re not really from Afghanistan, but you’re kind of immersed in the life.”

By this time, Howk had a deep understanding of reconciliation, forgiveness and what the Quran actually says. He finished out his career in the intelligence community, and that’s when “phase two” of his life began. As his number of speaking engagements increased, Howk realized that he had to require a healthy atmosphere conducive to open exchange of understanding amongst people of all faiths. Speaking to Muslim and non-Muslim groups, he tells his audiences to not take the conversation personally or politically.

Additionally, Howk believes in a different approach to interfaith work. Typically, a Christian explains Christianity, a Jew explains Judaism, a Muslim explains Islam and so on. He’s flipped that formula on its head – and it’s worked.

“Most audiences will actually listen to me and take a moment to think about it like, ‘wait a minute. This guy lived in that culture, and he’s giving us facts. He’s not just giving us opinions or making up things. This is just what he experienced.’”

Howk carried the philosophy into the book “The Quran: A Chronological Modern English Interpretation.” Originally meant to be a PDF for friends in the military to better understand the places they were serving, a publisher approached Howk and said it needed to be made available to the public. Since then, it has won an award for excellence in writing from the Readers’ Favorite International Book Contest and received the Gold Medal from NATIONAL INDIE EXCELLENCE AWARDS.

“I made it readable English. If I had to move a verse up a couple lines or move a verse down so that it flowed in English grammar and it made a paragraph that you can read, then I did that.” Howk changed the order of particular sermons to read chronologically in order to make the book easy to understand and a quick read for English speakers, as opposed to versions written by translators not as familiar with English.

Writing the book after a number of years giving talks, Howk anticipated the questions a typical American would have after reading the text. He’s even started the podcast “We’re Just Talking About It” to continue the dialogue between faith leaders to translate the understanding to members of all religions. Recently, Howk was asked to lunch with the president of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest Muslim organization in the continent. At one point in the more than three-hour lunch, Howk explained his background. The president said it was no mistake that Howk is doing what he’s doing.

“He told me, ‘God really chose you for this plan. I mean, you’re a Baptist military officer, and you wander around America explaining Islam to non-Muslims. That doesn’t happen by accident.’ He was very appreciative that I am trying to increase tolerance between religions and just get people to be nicer to each other in general.”

Regardless of a person’s religious view, Howk didn’t choose the past few years of his journey – the journey chose him. Although he assumed he would’ve gone fishing more than the two trips he’s been on in retirement, Howk finds fulfillment in his own niche approach to interfaith work.

“I don’t think this happened by chance. I can’t imagine too many things in the world happened by chance, but it certainly seems like there was a plan I wasn’t aware of. This is not what I thought I’d be doing in retirement. It’s really taken on a life of its own.”