On a windy Friday afternoon in Chicago, 20 students from the south side of Chicago stood patiently in a single-file line up, against the chilled cinderblock hallways beneath Soldier Field. The remarkable Barton and Joplin students were part of a hand selected group of Student Ambassadors from their respective schools who have not only shown a commitment to Character Development through the Character Playbook program. They have shown themselves willing and able to practice what they’ve learned about subjects such as communication, respect, managing emotions and conflict resolution, by mentoring siblings and other students, speaking in their communities and playing host to special guests at their own schools.
— Chicago Bears (@BearsOutreach) May 8, 2017
This time it was the Bears’, Verizon and United Way of Metro Chicago’s turn to return the favor of this hospitality in the Bears at Soldier Field, with an intimate conversation led by current Bears players Sam Acho and Jerrell Freeman, and former player Chris Draft.
As soon as the Locker Room door opened, before the students could make their way to their seats and settle in, they were greeted with the first of many opportunities to put their takeaways from Character Playbook into practice.
The first of its kind, this smaller format, private conversation allowed Draft to reinforce the importance of a first impression. “You see when you walk into a room, a firm handshake, eye contact and the announcement of your name tells people ‘I am here, I am memorable and I have something to say.’ ” And did they ever.
The Barton male students, dressed in bowties and sport jackets, movingly recited a modified version of Invictus, a Williams Ernest Henley poem originally published in 1888.
“This poem means that through whatever adversity they may face, these students will remain strong.” Shared Barton Assistant Principal, Edward Neequaye.
The Joplin Girls followed up with a melodious back and forth anthem delivered with great conviction.
“What we do most is what we do best: get an education.
You can’t hide: Scott Joplin pride.
Because we are: Jaguars.
And we want to let you know that every day we come to be: Ready.
We come to be: Responsible.
And we come to be: Respectful.”
Asked by a Barton student, what character meant to him, Jerrell Freeman opened the floor by answering, “Character is who you are when you don’t think anyone is watching.”
This unique setting allowed for more personal discussion and back and forth, allowing Freeman and Acho, to challenge the students, at one point asking them to stand individually and proclaim their aspirations. Encouraged by applause and nods of approval from every direction, students stood with confidence in front of their peers and proclaimed their plans to attend colleges from NYC to Spellman, and for careers in medicine, law, computer science and professional sports.
In a scene that read as if pulled from the pages of the Character Playbook itself, Acho shared a recent moment of character reinforcement. As a result of his relationship with Coach Boomer Roberts, Acho recently found himself in the role of one man cheerleading section rooting for Trinity International University’s basketball team during their unlikely D2 NAIA playoff run. Acho traveled back to Chicago from his hometown of Dallas to root on the underdogs. “My job, as small as it may have seemed, was to cheer as loud as humanly possible, and bring others along with me. I was ready for anything that the opposing fans had to give me. But it is what I WASN’T ready for that almost had me leaving the game early.”
At fault only as a result of his size, volume and enthusiasm, Acho found himself confronted by fans also rooting for his Trojans, yet bothered by his raucous display of support. After being confronted three times, Sam confessed he had to quite literally take himself out of the game, and get his emotions under control, cooling off in the privacy of his own car. It was Coach Boomer’s wife who stepped in and helped Sam put the very lessons taught through Character Playbook into practice, reminding him that this day was about the team, and even with the best of intentions, Acho’s response to escalate or diffuse this confrontation could easily steal the team’s spotlight. After considering bailing on his initial gesture of support, Sam returned to the gymnasium, and humbly moved his one man cheering section to another part of the gym.
“She was right. This game was not about me, nor was it about the person behind me. It was about the team and everything they were trying to accomplish. They had come this far, and my emotions and frustrations had no place at the table that night. So subtly, but humbly, I moved. I went to a side of the stands where I wasn’t in anyone’s way and cheered my socks off for the Trinity International Trojans.”
Before departing the facility, Asst. Principal Neequaye shared, “This was an experience our students will never forget. Students were able to have real conversations about their aspirations and dreams. The players discussed their road to the NFL which helped students understand we all have challenges and obstacles but those are what shape us and make us all unique. The Bears players spoke life into our students. I am eternally grateful to the Chicago Bears organization, United Way, Verizon, GADC, and Everfi.”