Academic rewards


Noriel Martinez, of 28th and Mifflin streets, did not expect his name to be called.

"My heart was pumping fast," the James Alcorn Elementary School seventh-grader said.

The 12-year-old was one of 50 students from the school at 3200 Dickinson St. to receive a backpack filled with goodies from Tackling Together, a Cherry Hill, N.J.-based nonprofit.

"I’m going to do all my work and try not to get in trouble," he said in hopes of being chosen again next year.

Barrett Brooks, a former Philadelphia Eagle, visited Friday afternoon with 50 bags packed with school supplies he doled out to the top students of each grade.

Tackling Together cofounders Brooks and wife Sonji wanted to give back to Sonji’s former neighborhood of 27th and Wharton streets and the school her brother and sister — Renaldo and Carmen Cristobal — attended, so they contacted Grays Ferry’s Alcorn Elementary two weeks earlier and Principal Yvette Jackson accepted their gifts with open arms.

"What time and how many bookbags?," she said she asked when approached with the idea.

Not only were some students’ academic performance rewarded, but Brooks’ educational message fit right in with what the school is aiming to instill in its students, Jackson said.

"The students need to do better than their best," she said.

Brooks visited five classrooms for grades one through three before meeting with remaining grades four through eight in the auditorium. With funds raised through his nonprofit, Brooks presented the best of each grade with a black bag jammed with scissors, crayons, glue, pencils and a ruler, as well as an autographed photo and a mini football.

With all the excitement, Brooks set the bar high for all 542 pupils when he vowed to return next year.

"We’re starting a drive," he said. "Whoever gets good grades in this school will get a present from me."

Even those, such as seventh-grader Saiah Randolph, who were chosen this time around promised to improve.

"I’m going to try to get all A’s," the 13-year-old from 26th and Dickinson streets, who received a bookbag from Brooks, said.

"What do I look like?," Brooks, a 6-foot-5, 350-pound former offensive tackle, asked a first-grade class.

Most students immediately pinned him as a football player.

"I block for the quarterback," the 37-year-old responded. "I make him look good."

Students asked Brooks what it takes to make the Eagles to has he beaten the Cowboys and, even as questions typically turned to his pro career and students gawked his Super Bowl ring, he kept his message at the forefront.

"Everyone could do it," he said of making the Eagles to a classroom of second-graders. "You have to work really hard at everything you do."

The St. Louis native knew football wouldn’t last forever, citing the NFL as standing for "Not For Long." After graduating from Kansas State University, where he attended on an academic scholarship, he was an Eagles second-round draft pick in 1995. He played with the Birds for four seasons, bounced around to a few teams before landing with the Steelers in 2003, where he won a Super Bowl two years later. He retired following a knee injury in ’06 after 12 years in the league.

After a relatively long career in a short-lived field, Brooks shared his three keys to success with the student body.

"I got good grades," he said to a third-grade class. "Number two, I still listen to my elders. I’m a grown up and I still listen to my elders and I’m a good, good person."

While some did not know who Brooks was, as most were not even born during his stint with the Eagles in the mid-’90s, they still enjoyed the presentation.

"I was thinking that he was a really good person in telling people to do well in school and never give up," 10-year-old fifth-grader Mykeira Williams, of 31st and Wharton streets, who was rewarded with a backpack, said.

Not only did Brooks tell the children education is key, but added being a pro athlete is not all it’s cracked up to be.

"I’ve come to talk to you today to tell you about … I hated football," he said during the assembly. "You hear me? I hated football growing up. I hated it with a passion. You know why I played football? Because my mom made me play it. I listened to my elders. My mother said, ‘Look boy, if you’re going to be outside playing all the time, you’re going to be playing sports,’ so I played football."

He told the students to go to college even if they want to play pro sports and added, during his career, he went back to school to obtain two master’s degrees in human resources management and health-care management from Colorado State, where he graduated last year, and has owned his own nursing school for five years in Cherry Hill.

"Let me tell you this," he said to the audience, "I make more money doing what I do now than what I made in the NFL. And I beat my body up and hurt everywhere and broke bones when all I had to do was go get an education."

Brooks’ message concluded the first week of school for Alcorn students and it might just be the encouragement needed to start the year off on the right foot.

"It probably made other kids think to get good grades, so they can get a bookbag or whatever he brings," Martinez said of next year’s visit.

The experience also was rewarding for the ex-footballer, who has played in front of quarterbacks like Randall Cunningham and Ben Roethlisberger.

"That’s what I live for," Brooks said of seeing the kids’ reactions when he handed each a bookbag.