Student-athlete is a term used to remind athletes that they are students first, and privileged to play the sport they love.
This past Friday morning at Elk Lake, a group of Lackawanna Trail football players - fresh off of playing in a state championship football game last month - embraced their academics and showed some of their youngest fans how cool it is to read.
Trail wide receiver Jordan Edwards, running back Noah Coleman, quarterback Nate Rolka, tight end Zach Cost, guard/tackle Jake Brimm, tackle Robbie Davis, and wide receiver Zac Stec arrived at the Springville school early, dressed in their scarlet red jerseys.
The Lions read to the littlest Warriors as part of the district’s Mystery Reader Program, with the theme of the event being “These big, strong football players read...just like you!”
With “Jock Jams” playing as the kids entered the auditorium, the crowd was pumped.
Elk Lake Title I reading specialist Susie Rothwell began the event by showing clips of the football team in game film and news clips. The kids were cheering along as if they all wore red and black instead of green and white.
Then the boys were introduced, and came out throwing candy and mini footballs into the crowd.
One by one, they read three stories as the kids followed along with the books on the drop down movie screen hanging over the stage.
Coleman began the morning by reading from Tony and Lauren Dungy’s book, “Austin Plays Fair.”
The story centered around a theme of playing fair is more important than winning.
Next up was Rolka, who read “Don’t Throw it to Mo” by David A. Adler. His selection entailed an undersized plyer who struggled with catching the ball due to his size, but somehow ends up the hero of the game.
The reading concluded with a fun story called “Dino Football” by Lisa Wheeler read by Edwards.
Part of a series revolving around sports, the story used lyrical rhythms to tell the story of the Greenblades and the Redscales facing off in the Mega-Bowl.
Miming football motions like passing and catching, and cheering along with the characters on the pages, the students in the crowd were wrapped up in the moment.
The players went up the aisles and greeted all the students with high fives as they exited the program and headed back to class.
Rothwell began the Mystery Reader program three years ago. “We needed to have a reading program with more at-home reading and parent involvement,” she explained.
Elementary principal Marc Weisgold said, “Due to some program changes, we felt it imperative that we continue to have students and families read. This program was much like a playground football play, we drew it up in the dirt. We kicked a few things around and Susie, with help from the Title I team of Michelle Oakes, Laura Kipar and Kim Potuck, ran with it. She really broke several tackles and took it to the house.”
The goal of the program is to have more kids reading, whether it is chapter books by third graders, or kindergarteners having a bedtime story read to them.
“Much like a book can take you almost anywhere, this program- and the mystery readers we get- usually bring that concept to life. It’s a touchdown for sure,” said Weisgold.
Rothwell, who has been a teacher at Elk Lake Elementary School for 26 years, has spent the last six in the Title I program. When Weisgold approached her with some abstract ideas of a new program, Rothwell did what she does best.
Enter the Lions state silver medaling football team.
Rothwell, a resident of the Trail school district, reached out to Coach Steve Jervis and set the plan in motion. Once approval from both schools was sent, Jervis put the word out to his players.
After the program, he said, “What a win-win situation. (The players) are a special group for sure.”
Rothwell admits she was quite nervous. “I wasn’t sure how it would all go over. Would the high school boys want to do it? Would our kids be impressed with them? So many questions were being raised,” she admitted.
Turns out, she had nothing to worry about.
Rolka organized his teammates.
The original plan was for Rothwell, Rolka’s Godmother, to give him some football-themed books appropriate for the elementary readers to get familiar with over the Christmas break.
Upon searching the school’s library with Kathy Loman, elementary librarian and Dalton resident, the pair was disappointed in the selection of football books.
When the Trail team heard that, they sprung into action and donated three books to the neighboring district.
“We needed books. They donated them to us. It was that simple,” gushed Rothwell.
The festivities started earlier in the week, when Rothwell made an announcement on Monday morning reminding the students and staff that the readers were coming. “A few kindergartners picked up on the fact that I said readers, plural. They really get excited and tune into every piece of it. I keep it a secret from the teachers as well, and they try to get me to tell them. But it is all part of the excitement, seeing everyones face at the moment the readers arrive,” she said.
“Feedback has been wonderful from all sides. Susie, as a former classroom teacher, understands what it’s like to get kids reading, and organized, and has made the process so that the program is teacher and student friendly,” lauded Weisgold.
On the way out, each one of the football stars thanked Rothwell for having them. “They didn’t realize we were thankful for them,” she reflected.
Both Elk Lake and Lackawanna Trail came out winners that day.
“This is what they will remember,” said Rothwell, but it was unclear which group of kids she was referring to, the students or the players.
To learn more about the Elk Lake Mystery Readers program, or to donate towards the program, please contact Rothwell at firstname.lastname@example.org