The ingredients in your average school spirit day are generally the same: rousing cheers, an antic mascot and school colors on every wall.
There was nothing average about the celebration at Nativity Catholic School in Brandon on Thursday, however, thanks to one additional and very special ingredient: Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Maurice Stovall.
"Spirit Day" for the Nativity Cougars was part of the school's "National Catholic Schools Week" celebration, an annual event that kicks off on the last Sunday of January. Across the nation, Catholic schools commemorate the leadership and service achieved through the school's mission.
Stovall, who received a Catholic education during his childhood before attending Archbishop John Carroll High School in Pennsylvania and then the University of Notre Dame, felt right at home at the Nativity Catholic festivities. For the fifth-year NFL wideout, the afternoon began with a visit with Dr. Bernadette Kunnen, the school's principal, whom he presented with an authentic autographed football. Kunnen followed suit by awarding Stovall a certificate of appreciation and a Nativity Catholic Cougars t-shirt as a thank you for his visit.
The wide receiver then headed to the classrooms, where he shared stories about his upbringing, family, educational experiences and how all of it helped him get to where he is today.
"I stressed the importance of staying in school, academics, listening to your parents and just dreaming about what you want to do in life and achieving those things," Stovall said. "I told them that anytime you have difficulty doing those things, reach out to God."
Stovall stopped by the majority of the classrooms at Nativity Catholic, but gave special talks to the 4th, 6th and 7th graders, relating tales about his journey to the NFL and emphasizing the need to work hard and keep faith. "Keep the Lord in your life," was the common theme throughout.
"I enjoyed, myself basically meeting the entire school, talking to the kids, shaking their hands and such," said Stovall. "It was very exciting; there were a lot of Buccaneer fans, and they showed me a lot of love."
Nick Weir, a fourth-grader who wants to be a wide receiver himself, couldn't stop smiling when talking about No. 85. "It was really cool that he came to our class and shook my hand," Weir said. "I haven't had an idol before, but now he's definitely my new favorite player."
Sixth-grader John Hentschel echoed the same message. "It's really cool that he went to a Catholic school just like us," said another new Stovall fan. "I can't wait to tell all my friends I met him."
For his part, Stovall was impressed by the depth of questions he fielded from the students during his visit. They came in a flurry and covered a variety of topics, but Stovall took the time to answer each one individually.
"They asked a lot of intelligent questions for their age, and that just shows you what type of school they go to and the education that they're receiving," he said.
The toughest question of the day actually stumped the Notre Dame grad.
"The hardest question that I got was from a girl in fourth grade who asked me what my biggest achievement in life was," Stovall said. "She really got me with that one, for I couldn't really give her one answer. I basically told her that I always look for the next big thing and am never really satisfied. Even going to the NFL, that's an achievement in itself but there is still so much more that I want to do."
The students weren't the only individuals inspired by Stovall's visit, as many of the teachers and administrators expressed their appreciation as well. Kunnen beamed when speaking on the obvious impact Stovall had on her students.
"Maurice was everything we could have hoped for and more," she said. "He is the absolute perfect role model for all of these kids - he preached academics, athletics and letting God guide you. We couldn't have asked for a better person to come in and speak, and I am thrilled that we have had the opportunity to listen to him."