It's not often someone welcomes the command to hit the floor and do push-ups, but Hilltop Elementary School fifth-grader Christian Gavarrete didn't hesitate Tuesday when Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice ordered, "Give me 20."
The 10-year-old said he hadn't done that many push-ups in two years, but with schoolmates and staff cheering him, Gavarrete accomplished the feat well enough to impress even Rice.
The Ravens star visited Hilltop Elementary to stress the importance of breakfast and exercise as part of the Maryland Meals for Achievement program, which serves free breakfasts to students regardless of family income.
Hilltop Elementary joined the program last year, and since then nearly 80 percent of its students have participated. The program is implemented through state funding and grants from the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association and Share Our Strength, a Washington-based nonprofit that provides meals for children through the No Kid Hungry campaign.
Hilltop fifth-graders and staff had decorated Hilltop in advance of Rice's visit. The walls of the Glen Burnie school were lined with drawings of the Ravens and students wore team jerseys.
Rice's entry into a full auditorium prompted high-pitched screams and ovations as he bent to high-five dozens of youngsters while making his way through the crowd.
The running back spent more than an hour talking about the importance of eating a good breakfast and staying fit, adding that his early-season hip injury reinforced the need to take care of his body. Rice was coming off his best single-game performance of the season, 25 carries for 131 yards and a touchdown in the Ravens' loss at Chicago on Sunday.
"In the sport that I play, if I don't eat breakfast, my day just does not go right," said Rice, 26. He asked the fifth-graders seated before him, "How many of you have missed breakfast, and if you're in class you're already thinking about lunch?"
Nearly every student raised a hand.
"In football, I eat breakfast and then I go to meetings, and then we have lunch before practice," Rice said. "If I didn't eat breakfast before meetings, I might miss something that could probably cost us a game. They're telling me something where I have to protect [Ravens quarterback] Joe Flacco, or a hole that I have to run through. [Breakfast] starts my day off right."
Rice said he began the day with egg whites, a banana and oatmeal with milk.
"Growing up, they said that milk does a body good and helps you grow," said the 5-foot, 8-inch running back. "It didn't make me grow, but it made me really strong.
Rice requested Christian Gavarrete's impromptu workout after the student asked what he does to stay in shape. The running back mentioned an in-season/out-of-season workout that includes cardiovascular work and boxing, then turned to Christian and asked, "Want to come work out with me?"
Christian, who said he had had waffles for breakfast, was a bit taken aback by the request — then joined in.
"I wanted to look good," he said later. "It's good to know that a lot of people care about what you have in the morning. [Breakfast] is your energy. It's what you use throughout the day until lunch. It's really important."
Rice also watched other Hilltop students exercise and observed a performance by a dance troupe from nearby North County High.
He asked parents to help students make ideal food choices and stressed for students the importance of school.
"If you ever dream of being in a position I'm in — and I don't care if it's NFL, doctor, lawyer, teacher, president — you have to start off doing the No. 1 thing, and that's doing your schoolwork," he said. "I was never afraid to ask for help.
"Math was not my favorite subject, but it paid off. When you have to count money, it's all right," he said.
"It was really cool," said Hilltop fifth-grader Temitope Ajetomobi. "I like that I got to shake his hand and meet him in person. He taught me that leadership was very important."
Rice, who has also participated in anti-bullying efforts, said he relishes opportunities to visit schools.
"Tuesday is our day off, but it's truly not a day off for us; it's a day to give back to the kids and to the community," Rice said. "I try to give them something they can remember for the rest of their lives, something I will never take for granted.
"I was once a kid, and I can always remember seeing a professional athlete and what it did to me," he said. "And now I get to give them a message, and it feels good."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun