One week after Sterling Park Elementary School in Orlando was rewarded for winning the NFL's Play 60 Super School sweepstakes, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers once again joined with the league to encourage health and physical activity among Florida students.
This time, Buccaneer players Arrelious Benn, Sammie Stroughter and Dekoda Watson headed to Bay Point Middle School in St. Petersburg, where once again a spirited faculty and student body were rewarded for their efforts within the nationwide Play 60 initiative. By taking top honors the Bay area's arm of the "NFL Play 60 Challenge" this year, Bay Point had won thousands of dollars in new physical education equipment, an upgraded campus fitness trail and a celebratory visit from the Buccaneers and the American Heart.
The Play 60 Challenge, a national campaign created by the NFL and the American Heart Association, aims to inspire kids to exercise for a minimum of 60 minutes a day. NFL clubs throughout the league have teamed up with area AHA affiliates to tailor the campaign to their local communities.
This year, four middle schools competed in the program to learn about the importance of daily exercise, with the promise of earning funds for their schools' physical education departments. At each school, sixth grade students logged their daily exercise for four weeks, knowing that the school with the highest average of minutes spent exercising per student would receive a customized P.E. makeover.
With more than 600,000 total minutes of exercise logged over the month-long period, Bay Point won the challenge, though all four participating schools were rewarded for their efforts. The remaining three schools – Young Middle School, Ferrell Girls Preparatory Academy and Smith Middle School – all received additional funding for their P.E. programs.
"Our district provides funds for each area, but with the majority of them we have to focus on academics, which is really important," said Ann-Marie Clark, principal at Bay Point Middle School. "But educating the whole child is also important, so it's great to have this additional funding to renovate our fitness trail and make it more presentable and usable for the students. We were using old equipment, so anytime you have something new, it builds motivation. You're more excited about participating in sports, so it's a blessing. It really is a blessing, in addition to our district, to have the additional resources from the Bucs and the American Heart Association."
On Wednesday, Benn, Stroughter and Watson were joined by a group of Buccaneers Cheerleaders and members of the American Heart Association staff as they greeted students at Bay Point and met with the sixth-graders to congratulate them on their efforts. The gymnasium gathering included a presentation of more than $6,000 from the Buccaneers and AHA to benefit the school.
"I think it's a really great partnership because we're two strong organizations that come together on something as powerful as this for the youth, and to be able to take each other's messages and carry it out into the community is phenomenal," said Suzy O'Malley, vice president of Metro Tampa Bay's American Heart Association. "The kids listen because the Buccaneers are here. The players are so passionate and involved in this, and the kids see it. These are role models to them, so we want them to follow in their tracks."
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster was also on hand as a special guest at Tuesday's event, and he too recognized the significance that the Buccaneers' Play 60 programming can have on youth. Childhood obesity rates are at an all-time high, and today nearly one in three kids and teens in the United States is obese or overweight.
"The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are out in the community all the time, and they care about fitness," Foster said to the students. "These players care about fitness. When they were your age, they understood the benefits of a healthy diet.
"Some of you can be an NFL football player. How many of you want to play in the NFL? My hand is still up… I'm only 50, but there's still time."
Following a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the updated fitness trail, the sixth-graders participated in a series of football drills with the Buccaneer players and cheerleaders. The students took turns running through foot ladders with instruction from Watson, sprinting for passes tossed by Stroughter and evading – or in many cases, trying to plow through – a tackling dummy supported by Benn.
"Anything with the NFL, they're excited," said Clark. "They've been counting the days. When we finally got the date, it was a nice piece of excitement to look forward to. You see them, you see the reaction. The coach is really great. These are our sixth-graders, but our seventh-graders also participated, so it's a school-wide mindset. That's what we're aiming for – everybody improving their health and fitness goals."
School administrators weren't the only ones to recognize how much the Bay Point students have embraced the Play 60 campaign.
"The amount of minutes that they worked, it was like, 'Man, these kids get it,'" said Stroughter. "They're not just sitting in front of TVs with the new-age technology and Facebook. They're out there having fun, doing what they need to do to make sure they stay in shape and are active."
Added Benn: "It meant a lot to see the excitement in their faces about the Play 60 Challenge. Play 60 goes a long way as far as teaching kids about being active for 60 minutes a day and staying healthy. It's something we did when we were younger, so it's great to see the tradition going that far and kids being really into it."
If Wednesday was any indication, that tradition will carry on at Bay Point Middle School.
"These kids are excited, they're having fun, they're realizing that exercise doesn't always have to be hard work," said O'Malley. "That's the whole point, that playing is exercising, and this is a perfect example of that today."