Carolina Panthers

Panthers players rally East Garner Middle School

Jerricho Cotchery and Graham Gano of the 11-0 Carolina Panthers took time on their day off to rally the students at East Garner Middle School and teach them the importance of exercising and eating healthy.

It was part of the NFL’s Fuel Up to Play 60 initiative, which encourages kids to get out and play. East Garner Middle was Wake County’s winner of the Touchdown School Award, which is the initiative’s highest honor, by taking steps to ensure wellness in the school.

Led by Cotchery and Gano, teachers and students participated in challenges that featured obstacle courses, dance-offs and a race to see who can put on a football uniform the fastest. The gym rocked as the students cheered and screamed.

“I’m just in shock that we were the school that was chosen for them to come,” said East Garner Middle principal Elena Ashburn. “They came all the way from Charlotte. It’s a big trek and a big commitment from them especially during football season to come out here. So we’re very thankful that they did it.”

The Carolina Panthers are the only undefeated team and football and probably the most talked about sports team in the Carolinas right now.

Cotchery, who played wide receiver at N.C. State, said the trip brought back memories driving up Interstate 40 to Garner. He said East Garner Middle School was probably the most enthusiastic school he had ever visited.

“The teachers are very enthusiastic, so I can see where it comes from,” he said. “It was just a great environment to be a part of. Like I said, they were receptive to everything that we talked about today when it came to Play 60 and eating healthy and having dairy products be a part of their diet.”

Cotchery emphasized the importance of the Panthers organization getting out to schools on their days off and being a role model to the students.

“It’s very important,” Cotchery said. “This is the next generation that is coming up. We wanted to stress the importance of exercising and a healthy diet. It’s going to be very important to establish at a young age.”

Gano, the Panthers’ kicker, agreed.

“It’s very important learning that breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” Gano said. “You need to make sure you get your low-fat dairy, your fruits and grains and vegetables.”

It was Gano’s first time to the eastern part of North Carolina. He said the trip was long but well worth it. Gano said he remembers as a kid wishing he had something similar at his school.

“So it’s always fun to be able to give back and just to have these type of opportunities,” Gano said. “It’s important to all of us in the Panthers organization when you have these moments.”

The Panthers also presented a $10,000 Carolina Panther Hometown Grant check to Wake County Public Schools. The grant will go to two schools – East Wake and East Millbrook Middle Schools – to pay for kiosks that will serve breakfast as part of its “universal breakfast program.”

The program serves free breakfast at schools to any child regardless of household income.

Its purpose is to encourage eating breakfast and to eliminate the stigma that only poor students eat breakfast at school.

“We really feel that breakfast has a huge impact on kid’s learning and it’s been proven that their math scores are improved,” said Paula De Lucca, the senior director of child nutrition services at WCPSS.

County commissioners gave $90,000 to the school system to implement the program at 13 elementary schools earlier this year.

“In those schools, it increased breakfast participation by 7 percent,” De Lucca said. “It also increased participation levels amongst students who qualify for free or reduced lunch meals, which was our goal.”

During the players’ visit, sixth-grader Diego Solorzano said, his favorite contest was the obstacle course. He laughed when a couple of students and teachers tripped. Diego said he is not much of a football fan, but he was glad the Panthers came to his school.

“It was really nice how (the Panthers) came to our school, out of every single school they could have gone to, and they came to ours,” he said.

Johnny Whitfield contributed to this story

Jonathan M. Alexander: 919-829-4822, @GarnerCleveland