Fifth Ward students ‘Play 60’ with Saints players

Published 8:30 am Sunday, February 3, 2013

Imagine working out, including racing, lifting weights, jumping rope, running an obstacle course and sprinting with New Orleans Saints players Jimmy Graham, Michael Lewis and Akiem Hicks as part of your school day.

As the grand prize winner of the NFL’s Play 60 Challenge, that’s exactly what some of the students at Fifth Ward Junior High in Bush did last week.

The school also received a $2,500 NFL play grant to be used for health and fitness equipment and an Xbox 360 with Kinect. Xbox Kinect is an NFL Play 60 sponsor, along with the American Heart Association, and provides an interactive activity and fitness programs students can play and use to get in shape.

“There are 1,440 minutes in a day,” said Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. “All the NFL is asking for is 60 of those minutes to be active, exercise and play.”

Graham told the students he was not always a big guy, 6 feet, 7 inches tall and 260 pounds. Instead, he said, “I was the little redhead kid of the class. I didn’t get big until later.” He emphasized to the students that it is important to eat healthy food; drink water, not soda; study hard; and stay in school.

“Football players don’t just throw the ball around,” Graham said. “Instead, each week we are studying the other team, learning new plays to deal with their players. It’s important to know your personal learning style, how you in particular are able to learn things so you can be prepared in life.”

He explained the importance of remaining hydrated and said during the pre-season training camps, when the heat index is at 110 and the temperature is also high, he can lose 10 pounds easily during one practice. “You need to replenish what your body loses by drinking plenty of water or sports drinks. Fruit juices aren’t good, though, because they contain a lot of sugar,” he said.

The questions about hydration, nutrition and studying came from students selected for the honor. Fifth Ward Junior High School Principal Christopher Oufnac told Graham the school’s football team won their first game in 12 years.

Impressed with their determination and the results of their training, Graham added another gift to the school from his personal foundation — cleats for the entire football team.

The result was cheers as loud as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, or close to it.

“It’s almost as loud in here as it is in the Dome,” Graham said. “I wasn’t expecting this kind of reception.” Originally from Goldsboro, N.C., a small town like Bush, he said, “I wish I could have met a pro player when I was in school.”

He said that he enjoys giving back to the community when he can.

A basketball player at the University of Miami, Graham had a double major in marketing and management, earning a business degree. He stayed there for another year and became a tight end for the Hurricanes, transitioning from basketball to football and earning a spot in the NFL.

Joining Graham in the gym of the school, leading students in various exercises, were Saints’ defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and former wide receiver, return specialist and Pro-Bowler Michael Lewis, who now works as a team ambassador with the front office.

The school was selected by the NFL for the honor because of its “above and beyond” demonstrations in the Play 60 Challenge competition. All schools in a 90 miles radius of New Orleans were invited to participate in the competition, according to Anna Isaacson with the NFL.

In addition to the normal score sheet sent to schools, Fifth Ward’s fourth- through sixth- graders kept a journal. Each student’s journal contained their activity for the day, including time and place and what the activity was, in order to show their Play 60 minutes.

“It was amazing,” said Isaacson. “They simply went above and beyond what any other school did in the competition.”