Mac Stephens heard a familiar voice and a tap on his shoulder as he settled into his seat at Rocket Mortgage Arena and turned his head.
Stephens, the head football coach at Cleveland Heights High School, was stunned to see Kareem Hunt standing — and eventually sitting — next to him for the Cleveland Cavaliers game against the Brooklyn Nets on Nov. 22. Stephens had been a mentor for Hunt, who grew up in the Cleveland area and trained with Stephens when he was in middle school, and the two have kept in touch as Hunt has built an NFL career that's now in its fifth season.
Coincidentally, both happened to have tickets next to each other, and both were thrilled to unexpectedly have a couple hours to catch up and enjoy the game.
"(Me and my son) were sitting there, and then all of a sudden, Kareem sits right next to us," Stephens said. "It was a crazy moment, but I was thankful to catch up with him."
One of the things Hunt discussed with Stephens struck a personal note and was the highlight of the evening.
Hunt told Stephens that he was inspired by the "Build the Bridge" initiative, which Stephens, along with Cleveland Heights assistant football coach Kahari Hicks, created in 2020 when social unrest accelerated across the country following the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.
The initiative was designed to empower, develop and unify high school football teams through meaningful interactions between programs of different racial and/or socio-economic demographics, and it continues to be a huge success. Over 30 schools initially signed up to participate when it began last year and participated in team activities, such as a 7-on-7 scrimmage. In June 2020, "Build the Bridge" held a symposium at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and a football showcase camp was held a year later in Willoughby.
On Sunday, "Build the Bridge" will receive even more attention thanks to Hunt.
He, as well as CB Greg Newsome II, will don cleats with the initiative's logo for Sunday's game against the Ravens as part of the Browns' My Cause My Cleats week, which allows players to share powerful stories and inspiration through custom cleat designs with signature meanings during pregame and throughout the team's matchup.
Hunt informed Stephens at the Cavs game he'd be wearing the cleats, and Stephens was overjoyed.
"To be quite honest, it really caught me off guard," Stephens said. "It just came out of the blue. We were just talking, catching up and wishing him luck for the rest of the season.
"When he said that, I was pleasantly surprised. It's a testament to who he is as a person."
As part of the NFL's annual My Cause My Cleats campaign, more than 30 Browns players will share powerful stories and inspiration through custom cleat designs with signature meanings during pregame and/or throughout the team's matchup against the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium
For Hunt, the cleats not only represent a great cause, but also his appreciation for an initiative that started in his home city from a man he's respected since his first days of football. His cleats are a mix of brown, black and white colors, which replicate the look of the logo and the meaning behind the initiative: to break down racial barriers and bring people of different backgrounds together.
"I love what Coach Mac is doing," Hunt said. "He always believed in me, even at a young age when I couldn't see that I had a chance to make the NFL.
"I understand what he's trying to do with 'Build the Bridge,' and it's all something that really caught my eye. It's a great feeling that I can do this for him and show the world what it really means."
For Stephens, Hunt's choice is yet another way for "Build the Bridge" to continue to grow. The meaning of the initiative has already been driven to hundreds, if not thousands, of student athletes, coaches and others in Northeast Ohio and beyond. Hunt's nod to it Sunday will further ensure that the message will continue to be delivered.
"It makes you feel good because when you're doing all this coaching, you hope you leave a positive impact," Stephens said. "So for him to strike up that conversation and tell me what he was doing, it was all just a pleasant surprise."