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TOWAMENCIN – Eric Rowe smiled shyly.
North Penn senior Brandon McManus – Rowe’s Friday night hero - had just surprised the A.M. Kulp second grader with an autographed football.
“I’ll probably frame it in my room,” Rowe said of his plans for the prized football.
The two had developed a special bond after Rowe wrote McManus a letter in the fall of 2007, and it’s a friendship that was renewed on Thursday morning when the North Penn senior – who is bound for Temple University on a football scholarship - visited A.M. Kulp as part of the Knights’ fifth annual Reading Super Bowl.
“He wrote about me and had such great devotion, and I figured I would give him something he would appreciate,” McManus said of his spontaneous gesture that made Rowe’s day.
That was one of countless special scenes that was replayed in 13 elementary schools throughout the North Penn School district as 81 football players took a break from their classes to encourage their young fans to read. All told, they read to approximately 4,700 children in 209 classrooms throughout the district on Thursday.
Without exception, the players are treated like conquering heroes by awe-struck youngsters.
“It’s great to go back to your old school and see how they look up to you,” said senior Tyler Smith, who will be taking his football talents to Bucknell. “They idolize you – you’re a celebrity while you’re there.
“They didn’t have this when I was in elementary school. If they had, I would have been one of those kids going crazy.”
Ronnie Akins returned to his alma mater, Knapp Elementary School.
“The kids love it – they’re always cheering and laughing,” said the senior standout, who one day earlier signed a letter of intent to accept a scholarship to Villanova. “It’s fun seeing little kids looking up to you and so happy to see you. Seeing my old teachers is also good.
“Today my first class was giving me a lot of hugs – they didn’t want me to leave.”
For a few of the athletes, the thought of reading to a classroom of youngsters was more unnerving than the prospect of playing football in front of thousands of screaming fans.
Dwayne Douglas admits that despite considerable preparation he is nervous as he’s about to head off to York Elementary School where he will read The Great Fuzz Frenzy to three different classes.
“I read it so many times I don’t remember,” the North Penn senior said. “I read it to the kids at church. I read it to the younger kids in the nursery. The older people were interested, so I read it to them. Teachers at school – I read to them.
“It was nice.”
On a day set aside to promote an interest in reading, Douglas had the right idea, and when he returned to the high school later that morning, he admits it was a special experience.
“At first, I was nervous,” he said. “At the second (class), I was getting calm, and at the third one, I was going great.
“It was pretty much fun. I would like to do it again. I definitely would do it again.”
Dr. Charles D’Alfonso, principal of York Elementary, had a message for the five young men who read at his school.
“You guys have a lot of power over these kids,” he said. “Believe it or not – they’ll listen to you and do as you say.”
D’Alfonso asked junior Andre Poe to offer special encouragement to a specific fifth grader who will be in his class.
“He has to keep reading every night,” the York Street principal said. “You are the perfect role model.”
And that is what the Reading Super Bowl is all about.
The program, initiated to foster interest in reading, not only encourages youngsters to read but also places high school students in the position of role model for the importance of literacy.
What began four years ago with 30 players going to eight elementary schools has grown to unimaginable heights.
“I never thought it would get to this size,” said Cheryl Neubert, a former football parent who initiated the event in 2005 and continues to oversee it. “Going out and seeing Duane (Douglas) read today, or the other day watching the players in the gym lobby practicing reading to each other – because I’m a former teacher, that’s what it’s all about.
“It’s about the reading. It’s about being okay to be nervous and going out today and conquering that. Seeing those football players who are rough and tough getting a little nervous about reading to little kids, but they will do it and they want to do it – it touches your heart in explicable ways, and it chokes me up.”
There’s a lighter side to the day as well. The children invariably ask some interesting questions.
Tim Conboy was asked why he didn’t wear his helmet.
A wide-eyed youngster asked Trey Farmer - who will be playing football at West Chester - if he was a giant.
“I like coming back and seeing the teachers, and reading to the kids is fun,” Farmer said.
The books that are read are selected by the reading specialists of the elementary schools, and the players also leave a book – signed by the team captains - at each of the schools that will be placed in the library.
One of the highlights of the classroom visits occurs when the players distribute their football trading cards to the eager students at the end of the reading session. The playing cards are sponsored by Univest and Printworks. Univest also donates a book to each of the elementary school’s libraries.
Eighty-one players read books to youngsters on Thursday. Hunter Nouansavanh read The Joke’s On George. Andre Poe selected The Tuskegee Airmen Story. For Sean Varga, it was Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot.
Their names won’t find their way into the sports’ headlines for playing starring roles in this year’s Super Bowl, but it is every bit as noteworthy as what they do on the gridiron on Friday nights in the fall.
“I think it’s a good thing to get out in the community and see them in a positive light,” coach Dick Beck said. “It’s a good opportunity for them to get their name out there in a positive way.”
For one day, football took a backseat to reading to these young athletes, and it could make all the difference in the world to the youngsters who watched and listened.