Bucs WR Michael Clayton, flanked by new pal Justin Austin, spoke to the students of Oak Grove Middle School about the importance of education and a healthy lifestyle
When Michele Myrtle submitted an entry in the 2009 "NFL Take a Player to School" sweepstakes for her son Justin Austin, she didn't expect much. If any response came, she assumed, it would be to inform her that one of the other 90,000 entrants had won. After all, the nationwide contest selects only 34 lucky students, making Justin's chances to win the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity improbable at best.
Fortunately, she was wrong.
Justin was in class at Oak Grove Middle School in Clearwater when Myrtle learned that her son's entry had been selected. She couldn't wait to tell him the good news.
"I went to school to tell him because I was so excited," Myrtle recalled. "Neither [Justin nor his friend] could believe it. When I told them, they were both very, very excited. They were both very happy and overwhelmed."
On Tuesday, after months of anticipation, Justin's special day arrived when Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Michael Clayton visited the sixth grader's house to accompany him to school. Clayton arrived in a limousine a few minutes after 9:00 a.m., greeting the young student with a replica jersey in hand. After receiving a tour and signing a few items for Justin's family and friend Treco Miller in the living room, Clayton escorted the two youngsters to the limo and they all piled in and headed to school.
Clayton and Austin, in matching #80 jerseys, were greeted by 30 of Justin's classmates as they pulled up in front of the school. The youth lining the sidewalk leading to the school's front doors had signs and noisemakers and gave large cheers as the Buccaneer and his new friend passed by and headed inside.
The duo's first stop was the principal's conference room, where Clayton signed more autographs, posed for pictures and mingled with school staff while Justin's classmates and the rest of the student body made its way to the auditorium. Surrounded by reporters and TV cameras, the "younger Clayton" sported an ear-to-ear grin.
As the event moved into the auditorium, Justin took the microphone and introduced his favorite player to the audience. Clayton then spoke about the importance of education and an active lifestyle and preached to the children the value of working hard and striving to make the most out of one's opportunities.
"Working hard is going to lead you, nine times out of ten, to be successful," Clayton shared with the assembly before him. "The things that I've learned playing sports, listening to my coaches, learning from my peers, especially seeing how my peers have made mistakes — I saw that and I didn't want to go down the same path so I was able to make great decisions and keep my life on track. Being in college and going through these experiences helped me grow as a man, helped me grow as a football player and led me to where I am today."
In addition to taking part in the Take a Player to School program, Clayton was also on hand to help promote the NFL's "Play 60" initiative, designed to promote active, healthy lifestyles among kids by urging them to play outside for at least an hour a day. The wide receiver reminisced about his childhood where his days were consumed with playing sports or participating in a physical activity whenever he had the chance.
"Being drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I owe it all to my experiences in the past as a kid," he said. "All the times that I caught footballs in the yard, that I shot basketball, played baseball, ate right — everything that I did on my journey to making it in the NFL — was very important and evolved me to where I am today."
After a Q&A session with the kids in the audience, Clayton brought the students to their feet for a school-wide "Play 60" cheer to close out the assembly. The wideout then took a lucky group of students to the gymnasium to bring the Play 60 program to life, participating in a physical education class that included tossing footballs, jumping rope and running relays.
"I think the kids really enjoyed it," said Michael Mustoe, Oak Grove's assistant principal. "We tell them all the time that they can do anything that they want and they need to study hard. But I think coming from a superstar like Michael Clayton, seeing that he's gone on and done the things that he's done with hard work really means more than just the teachers and administrators telling them that all the time."
Clayton hoped that his message would have a positive impact on the students in attendance.
"Being who we are in the community and playing in the NFL, it highlights us so much and we demand a lot of attention from the kids," said Clayton. "They respect us, they look up to us, and a message coming from myself as opposed to a teacher is a little bit different. They might look at it a different way and it sticks with them for a long period of time. When I was a kid I had the same experience and it really stuck with me for a long period of time so for being in that position now, it's a blessing to be able to give back to these kids."
As for Justin, the lucky student who shared a limo ride to school with Clayton and got to stand in front of his entire school with his favorite Bucs player, all it took was one word to describe the experience:
Justin's mother, who submitted the entry months before on behalf of her son, was extremely grateful his name was chosen.
"This is an experience we can never take back," Myrtle said. "It's the best experience — probably like winning the lottery for a little kid."