The football players towered above the middle school kids, and above the other adults for that matter.
Two former NFL athletes came to Marco Island Charter Middle School on Friday to share some thoughts with the students. They talked to the sixth grade, seventh and eighth grade kids in turn, as each grade level came to sit in the outside lunchroom on pizza Friday.
Ikaika Alama-Francis, or Ike Francis, and David Jones were not the marquee players whose names all the kids knew. But they had to work hard and overcome obstacles to play in the National Football League, and the league’s mystique provided the luster that made the kids stop and listen to them while catching up with their friends and scarfing down pizza.
“We’re here to give you a few lessons,” Francis told the students. “We’ve spoken to 27,000 of your peers. Growing up, I wanted to be a fireman and rescue people. Then I found out I could dunk a basketball, and tackle Tom Brady pretty good.”
That got the kids’ attention. Many were wearing jerseys of their favorite athletes on “Fan-tastic Friday,” but not many had on the colors of the teams Francis and Jones had played for.
“I’m a little disappointed there aren’t more Dolphins jerseys,” MICMS principal George Abounader told one group as he introduced his guests. “You know I’m a Dol-fan.”
The Miami Dolphins were one stop for Francis in his six-year NFL career, along with the Detroit Lions and the San Francisco 49ers, playing nose tackle and defensive end. He told the children they need to be appreciative for the things they have, and have been given.
“The first thing I do every day is remember to be grateful. Can you say that word? Scream it out.”
To reach your dream, whatever it may be, takes practice and hard work, said Francis. The University of Hawaii standout was the son of a former Green Bay Packers reserve quarterback, and added karma to the list of things that affect how dreams turn out.
David Jones played two seasons for the Los Angeles Raiders and the San Diego Chargers, and had two catches as a wide receiver. He opened some eyes and ears with a confession:
“I’m 48 years old, and I’m functionally illiterate. I can’t really read and write,” he told the students, and shared a little of his “mean streets” upbringing. “I’m from Newark, New Jersey – the hood. If I took y’all to the hood you wouldn’t last five minutes.
“This is paradise. I never had pizza when I was a kid. I saw drugs, violence, killing, everything.” The NFL was his ticket out, but his illiteracy went with him.
“My inability to read and write made me lose millions of dollars. Now I’m going back to school to get my master’s in psychology, and I’m terrified,” he said.
The players kept their remarks brief, the better to fit into the informal lunchtime setting.
“We’re very grateful they’re here,” said Abounader. “We want to have them back next year, and we’ll set up an actual assembly.”
The players were brought to MICMS through the efforts of Rick LoCastro and Melissa Phillips of the Avow Foundation, and will be part of the Avow child bereavement program, said LoCastro.
“Grief makes children make bad choices,” he said, and the athletes’ message was about making good choices – to stay away from drugs, stay in school and do what your parents tell you. When the message comes from people who played for the NFL, the kids are more likely to listen.