Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Atlanta Falcons' Tony Gonzalez helps pick out toys for Quantavious, 10, far left, and Lee, 6, back to camera, with teammate Antone Smith during Gonzalez's "Shop with a Jock" event on Wednesday at Walmart in Suwanee.
Shop with a Jock
Tony Gonzalez and several other Atlanta Falcons players take less fortunate children on a Christmas shopping spree.
SUWANEE -- In the break room of a Suwanee Walmart, beyond the layaway department and storage aisles, Atlanta Falcons quarterbacks Matt Ryan and John Parker Wilson are playing rock-paper-scissors. Rookie wide receiver Julio Jones, donning a black Red Sox cap, occupies a folding chair, relaxing those legs that have embarrassed NFL defenders.
The players draw slips of paper. They call out the names of kids who've had pretty rough lives. Offensive lineman Joe Hawley draws a girl's name. Joe is going to need help.
In walks the Santa of the hour, gridiron icon Tony Gonzalez, the team's tight end. He has organized this gathering, and the shopping spree that will unfold in minutes. For Christmas in 1982, Gonzalez got the Star Wars set he'd been pining for. He hasn't forgotten that feeling.
These gargantuan men (diminutive rookie Jacquizz Rodgers notwithstanding) crowd the room and take orders. Their commanders are 30 underprivileged and homeless kids from the Atlanta Mission, an emergency shelter. The kids don't seem to care how much the men are worth.
"You look at it like (the Falcons) are elves, you know," says Santa, who has been working at Walmart since 9 a.m. and is proud of his custom suit. He apparently keeps a home in Dacula, too. "Santa needs all the help he can get -- 23rd hour, man."
So into the aisles venture these kids and their Falcon elves. Star receiver Roddy White takes a second to ponder a pink Barbie house, but realizes his daughter already has one. Ryan's young buddy has dragged him to the video game section, where they sift through cabinets of PlayStation games. Cornerback Dunta Robinson bags a cart full of clothes. Two Suwanee police officers hang on the periphery, making sure the camera-phone clutching shoppers leave the elves room to work.
Ryan's shopper rides their cart like a San Francisco trolley. They bee-line past housewares and the bath section. Boring.
Chris Millman, Falcons youth programs manager, observes: "The kids are just totally blown away. The gravity of today is just overwhelming."
These "Shop with a Jock" participants aren't exclusively hunting for themselves, notes Marty Postlethwait, founder and director of the Shadow Buddies Foundation, which Gonzalez has supported since his rookie season nearly 15 years ago.
"What we find most of the time is that they want to buy for their family," she says.
The accumulation of gifts in most carts tops the $100 limit. Elves are seen reaching for their wallets. At least two Nintendo Wii gaming systems are bought. Second-string quarterback Chris Redman scored points with Gonzalez last year for spending $400 on a kid.
As for Gonzalez, he agreed to breach the limit with his pal, a bashful 10-year-old Atlantan named Quantavious, with one stipulation: Every dollar over $100 would be spent on books.
"We went way over," Gonzalez laughs, signing for Quantavious a copy of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" and disparaging his own handwriting. "It's the spirit of giving," Gonzalez says, "what Christmas is all about."
Each kid leaves with a Falcons backpack brimming with overnight supplies. In additional to books, Quantavious got a Wilson football and skateboard for Christmas. The experience, he said, "was fun."