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Falcons visit Berkmar sixth-graders

Members of the Atlanta Falcons, including Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, visited with students at Berkmar Middle School Tuesday as part of an initiative to encourage young people to lead healthy lives.


Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Students of Berkmar Middle School mimic the dance moves of Atlanta Falcons line backer Sean Weatherspoon (56) during the First Down for Fitness program in Lilburn on Tuesday. The NFL Play 60 movement is designed to challenge third through seventh grade students throughout the state of Georgia to participate in fitness activities and lead healthy lifestyles.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Students of Berkmar Middle School mimic the dance moves of Atlanta Falcons line backer Sean Weatherspoon (56) during the First Down for Fitness program in Lilburn on Tuesday. The NFL Play 60 movement is designed to challenge third through seventh grade students throughout the state of Georgia to participate in fitness activities and lead healthy lifestyles.

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Falcons First Down for Fitness

Members of the Atlanta Falcons, including Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, visited with students at Berkmar Middle School Tuesday as part of an initiative to encourage young people to lead healthy lives.

Members of the Atlanta Falcons, including Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, visited with students at Berkmar Middle School Tuesday as part of an initiative to encourage young people to lead healthy lives.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan The Atlanta Falcons players Cliff Matthews (98) and Sean Weatherspoon (56) get in a huddle with sixth and seventh grade students from Berkmar Middle School during the First Down for Fitness program in Lilburn on Tuesday. The NFL Play 60 movement is designed to challenge third through seventh grade students throughout the state of Georgia to participate in fitness activities and lead healthy lifestyles.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Berkmar Middle School sixth grader Mercedes Scott runs through a fitness station while catching a football thrown by Atlanta Falcon player Vance Walker during the First Down for Fitness program in Lilburn on Tuesday. The NFL Play 60 movement is designed to challenge third through seventh grade students throughout the state of Georgia to participate in fitness activities and lead healthy lifestyles.

LILBURN -- Kenney Wells was sitting in class with fellow sixth graders more than 30 years ago, when one of his favorite football players walked through the door.

"I remember Elois Grooms came out to the school and talked to us, and I remember the things he said to us," Wells said. "He told us about perseverance. I had never heard that word before, and as I got older, I reflected back on what he said to me."

Much like the number 78 emblazoned across the former defensive end's black and gold jersey, the memory is stamped in Wells' mind. The details still come back easily. The Berkmar principal said he hoped that students at the middle school would one day have similar recollections of the visit Tuesday from Atlanta Falcons players.

As part of an initiative that encourages young people to participate in fitness activities and lead healthy lifestyles, gridiron gladiators like Sean Weatherspoon showed up in the school's gym, much to the excitement of many sixth-graders.

Twelve-year-olds Daisha Overton and Joshua Ramdin, for instance, said they were thrilled to meet the athletes, and that "they're even bigger in person than on TV."

Like hundreds of other fellow Berkmar students, Overton and Ramdin, joked, tossed the pigskin, danced around the gym and listened intently to what the football players had to say about the importance of staying fit, eating healthy and having good hygiene.

Weatherspoon said he volunteered for the event because "it's such a great cause. Even though it's my day off, I would much rather spend it with the kids. I'm real big on Play 60 and what's being done with that."

Play 60 is the National Football League's campaign to encourage children to be active for 60 minutes a day in order to help reverse the trend of childhood obesity. Dana Griffith, who was a teacher of the year in 2011 for the Falcons' First Down For Fitness initiative, said Play 60 goes hand in hand with the Atlanta football team's efforts to encourage healthy lifestyles.

"I think the more we do events like this the better," said Griffith, a physical education teacher at Berkmar Middle. "These kids are no longer just hearing fitness tips from me. They're hearing from their role models. People they're watching on TV are sending a positive message."

Assistant Principal Chris Tuttle said that message seemed clear.

"Look how happy they are. They're exercising and having fun," remarked Tuttle, watching children zoom by, chasing after footballs, in the gym. "This is one of those days that makes you really glad to be here, doing this job."

Added Tuttle: "I think what means the most to these kids is that the Falcons are here with them, and they're being real with them."

Weatherspoon said spending time with children is fun for him.

"I've always wanted to be around kids, help them any way I can," Weatherspoon said. "I figure if I can come out here and just show them we care and we want the best for them, that's something that means a lot to them, and it's something that means a lot to me."

He added that if he'd been approached by an athlete from the National Football League as a sixth grader, he would have been thrilled.

"I wish it would have went down like that," he said, laughing. "I loved sports so much. As a kid I was always wanting to play. That was one of my favorite things to do, so if we can inspire these kids to get out there and have fun and play, then we've accomplished our goal. It's all about starting really young, being conscientious about exercising, eating healthy...choices like that will help them in the long run."

Wells said the fact that athletes like Weatherspoon simply took time out Tuesday to spend time with children at Berkmar will likely encourage them.

"These guys are always on TV, and today they're here in our gym," Wells said. "Our students love to watch them, but they also listen intently to them. They hang on every word."

Added Wells: "Sports celebrities are in a unique position. They've got the attention of many, many young people. The kids are going to listen to whatever it is they have to say, and they're going to remember it many, many years down the road. That's why I'm so excited that these players are here, and they seem to understand that what they say to children here today could make a big impact."