Buccaneer QB Brad Johnson meets 10-year-old Tony Pellegrino, one of 60 outstanding readers to gather at Sexton Elementary on Monday
In the back right corner of the library at Sexton Elementary School in St. Petersburg Florida hangs a giant model of an X-Wing fighter from Star Wars. Emblazoned on the side is the slogan, 'Reading Takes You Everywhere.'
On Monday morning, this very library was filled with 60 young students, about 50 of whom were visiting from other schools and had presumably never been on the Sexton campus before. None of the students were looking at the impressive model, however. There was a more tangible example of the X-Wing's message right in front of their eyes.
Brad Johnson, Super Bowl-winning quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, had the floor, and he was both congratulating the students on a job well done and urging them to strive for even more. Reading is at the center of education, Johnson told the students, and
"A lot of things in life can be taken away from you, but an education is something that can't," he said. "It's the foundation of where you go later on in your life and your career. This is the beginning of something great. I'm living proof of what education and hard work can do for you. I've been in your shoes, and maybe one day you can be up here in mine, helping other people learn the value of reading."
The 60 fourth and fifth-grade students, all of whom had shown outstanding progress in their reading programs over the course of the school year, had gathered at Sexton to be rewarded for their hard work by Pinellas County Superintendent Dr. Howard Hinsley. Johnson, who had sponsored the school district's 'Read to Win' initiative and brought students to Buccaneer games through his 'Brad's Champion Readers' program, was the guest of honor.
The students were treated to an ice cream-and-cake social and had an opportunity to meet the Pro Bowl quarterback one-on-one, but first Hinsley made a presentation in front of the children. Thanking Johnson for his efforts in promoting reading, the superintendent handed him a trophy in the symbolic shape of a globe. Johnson held it above his head with two hands, as if it were the Lombardi Trophy.
"As I've told students many times, there are so many things that can happen when you learn how to read," said Hinsley. "It opens up the whole world. You can travel places you never would have been able to go, you can learn all kinds of things. So this is presented to Brad Johnson for making a world of difference in the lives of our schoolchildren."
Johnson, whose mother is a Pinellas County assistant principal and whose father was formerly a schoolteacher and coach, in turn congratulated the students on the journeys they had begun by dedicating themselves to reading.
"You started something," said Johnson. "Reading is something you do either for knowledge or enjoyment. You will carry it with you for a lifetime. Everything that you learn now will last forever."
Johnson then took a seat in a nearby rocking chair draped with a Buccaneers flag and began meeting the students one at a time. Each child posed for a picture with the quarterback and was given a team picture, a pennant and an autographed poster. Many of the students took the opportunity to grab additional autographs, on items ranging from hats and photos to the cast on one unlucky young man's arm.
The Buc visitor also gave each student a copy of the book Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate Dicamillo. Earlier, Johnson, who holds a degree in education, had shared with the students one of the favorite books from his childhood, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Coincidentally – or perhaps not – Richard Bach's well-known tale centers on the joys of learning and striving for more.
The 60 children at the event on Monday represented seven Pinellas County grade schools – Sexton, Blanton, Gulfport, Pinellas Central, 74th Street, High Point and Campbell Park. After their close encounters with Johnson and a cake finally decorated to resemble a football field, they returned to their respective schools with one more lesson from the visiting Buccaneer.
"I always talk to them about not having any regrets," said Johnson. "A lot of times people look back and they wish they had run more sprints or they wish they had read more books or they wish they had worked harder. I'm not going to have any regrets in my life. I'm going to do as many things as possible and I'm going to attack and achieve as many things as I can. That's what I tell these kids. When you look back, whether it be at your grade school days, your high school days or your college days, don't have any regrets. Get it done."