The students at Fifth Ward Junior High School in Bush were treated to a morning full of Black and Gold, fun and exercise as they earned a visit from New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and team ambassador and former wideout/return man Michael Lewis. The visit was a reward for the school's participation and excellence as part of the NFL PLAY 60 Challenge, a program that taught students the importance of getting 60 minutes of daily activity, developed in conjunction with the American Heart Association.
As early as 9:15 a.m., teachers, students, administrators and parents in this small St. Tammany Parish town of ardent Saints boosters were eagerly anticipating the arrival of Graham, a player of similar small-town roots from Goldsboro, North Carolina, who has taken the NFL by storm in just three seasons with totals of 215 catches for 2,648 yards with 25 touchdowns, putting him among NFL leaders for three seasons and also putting him among Saints all-time receiving leaders.
In addition to his on-the-field success, Graham's achievements off-the-field are certainly something that these youth can look up to. Despite facing challenges in his childhood, including spending time in foster care, Graham earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Miami, where he played for four years and earned a business degree with a double major in marketing and management. Before considering entering the workforce, Graham stayed on the Coral Gables campus one more year and transitioned into being a tight end for the Hurricanes. He took advantage of the experience and through hard work and positive impressions at the Senior Bowl, NFL Scouting Combine and his workouts, completed the switch from the hardwood to the football field where his small forward's body and athleticism has been a perfect fit.
Upon his arrival, all the students formed two rows for him to pass by and give high fives to them as he made a grand entrance. Everybody then entered the school gymnasium where Graham was introduced to the students to thunderous applause and the school's cheerleaders performed a routine specifically prepared for the moment behind mixes of several songs including "Stand Up And Get Crunk".
"Today was a great opportunity to partner with the NFL PLAY 60 program," said Graham. "These kids are a lively bunch. It's great to be able to take advantage of more free time in the offseason and to be able to spend some time with them and show them some things."
Graham complimented them on their support and told them that the reception was even louder than what he hears from the fans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on gamedays. What followed was a question and answer session where five pre-selected students were able to join Graham at the podium and answer questions. The majority of the questions, natural for the event, centered around physical fitness. Graham said that he personally did not lift a weight until he entered high school, and that even now, he considers keeping peak cardiovascular health a priority in his training. In addition, he emphasized the importance of a balanced diet, as well as drinking water and Gatorade as opposed to sodas with higher sugar content.
Following the question and answer session, Graham took part in a check presentation for $2,500 to the PLAY 60 campaign that will go towards the purchase of health and fitness equipment at Fifth Ward Junior High. An additional donation came in the form of an Xbox 360 with Kinect being donated to the school.
Following the check presentation, a group of fourth, fifth and sixth graders remained in the gymnasium and Hicks and Lewis joined Graham in helping them run through physical exercise drills as well as playing games on the video game console for 45 minutes.
"Kids want to be active," said Graham. "They just have to learn how to. What I was here for today was to show them how they can do that whether at home with their parents or at school."