There was this giant of a man, a Hall of Fame football player, intent on delivering the message. Yet ever so gently. No %J shouting, theatrics or talking down to the listeners who had been briefed about his arrival. When he walked in the classroom they ** responded with the enthusiasm of the young, all in unison, a booming, "Good afternoon, Mr. Page."
Alan Page, who never missed a game in 15 years with the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears and, more importantly, is now an assistant attorney general for the state of Minnesota, visited with the fourth graders at James McHenry Elementary School as part of a national program funded by the Eastman Kodak Co., in cooperation with the Council of the Great City Schools and the National Football League.
What he had to say was delivered with passive clarity; it couldn't be misunderstood. The tenderness and understanding of Page showed through. His voice conveyed trust and a belief that every one of them, if they wanted to prepare themselves, "right now in the fourth grade," could reach the heights of accomplishment in any chosen field.
He asked what they had been working on and was told it was "addition and subtraction." Then he asked for volunteers to help him at the blackboard, asking how much change you would have left over if you had $1.51 and the purchase was $1.20. "That's right," he said, "31 cents."
Page realized getting involved would allow his audience to relax and feel comfortable with him. Obviously, he understands children and knows the technique of how to create relaxation. "The skills you work on today will be with you for the rest of your lives and, ultimately, that's what school is about. It allows you to achieve those dreams for the future."
He asked in each of the fourth-grade rooms, taught by Esther Quinn, Elizabeth Savolskis and Doris Smith, what each youngster hoped to be. Never once would he allow the boys to dismiss their futures by saying they wanted to be baseball, football or basketball players. He'd follow up by saying, "Yes, but you have to be more than just an athlete. You must work here in the fourth grade. What do you want to do the rest of your lives? That's important."
And then he extracted the expected answers of doctors, firefighters, nurses, police officers and teachers, which is what he wanted to hear. He was trying to convey the obvious point that so few athletes attain professional status that it's easy to get caught up in a one-track ambition when there are more meaningful and important things to do.
So be emphasized that right now the classroom had to be used for creating a foundation that will build a livelihood. Page remembers his own youth in Canton, Ohio, where he attended Market Elementary, Central Catholic High and had a summer job with a work crew involved in constructing the Pro Football Hall of Fame building -- where, in an intriguing kind of a twist, he eventually would be honored as one of its elite members.
Page played in 218 straight regular-season games, plus 16 playoffs and four Super Bowls -- 238 in all. But he didn't come to talk football. It was academics. He credits Notre Dame, where he got a degree in political science, with much of his success.
"At Notre Dame, the message caught up with me that I hadn't carried out the proper work in grade school," he said. "I knew instantly how right my parents had been in telling me I had to be a classroom achiever." He had earlier told the students that when he was in fourth grade he wasn't thinking of a career in football. His aspiration, even then, was to become a lawyer.
The questions came with rapidity, as the youngsters asked if he knew Michael Jackson? He answered "no." Do you know Bo Jackson? Another "no." How about Walter Payton, "Yes, I know him. He is a bright man and has been working hard since the fourth grade, where you are right now, and that's the reason he has gone on to do great things."
It's obvious that Page, married and the father of four, has a way with children. He held their attention, was never condescending and was elated when a third-grader, Mallory Matthews, came up to him in the hallway to show off the plaque she was given for
reading 258 books during summer vacation.
A ramrod straight graying man of 46, he fit smoothly into the academic environment and boosted the status of the teachers when he said, "Their job is vital to you and it's important some of you become teachers in the years ahead." J. Thomas Husted, the principal of the Southwest Baltimore school, praised Page's presentation as "excellent" and followed up by adding, "the children are thirsty for role models."
So in six different Baltimore schools, Alan Page will be a class visitor, refuting the importance of growing up to be an athlete but underlining how essential it is to be able to read, to construct a sentence and, finally, to offer a trained and educated product -- yourself -- to a world where opportunity still waits on preparation.