Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain faced an enthusiastic audience of elementary students in Carroll County. The children fired questions at him, asked him to pose for photos and issued a constant barrage of cheers.
After nearly three seasons in the NFL, McClain is used to boisterous and demanding crowds. But the 6-foot-1 football player had come to Manchester Elementary School to talk more about fitness and less about his game.
"It is wonderful to see all this purple," McClain said of the Ravens' signature color being worn by most of the grade-schoolers. "I am here to talk about the importance of staying active. You are the perfect age to hear that message."
The Ravens have joined Carroll County schools and the Partnership for a Healthier Carroll to help develop the fitness habit. McClain was at the school to kick off the Play 60 Challenge, part of a nationwide NFL fitness program to promote healthy, active lifestyles among youth.
Student participants must complete 60 minutes of physical activity every day for two weeks and keep track of their exercise on activity logs the schools provide.
"Kids need to be active every day for at least 60 minutes," said Linda Kephart, Carroll's supervisor of health and physical education. "We want this idea to become a daily habit so we have kids who are fit and feeling good about themselves."
McClain's challenge to stay fit will resonate throughout the 26 participating schools in the county, organizers said.
"We are doing anything we can to provide kids with healthy choices," said Lisa Kumpar, a health teacher at Manchester Elementary. "With fast food and electronic games, they tend to want to be lazy. We want them to be up and active."
And there are rewards, thanks mostly to the Ravens, who have pledged $1,000 to the school with the highest participation in the challenge. The money will help purchase gym equipment.
At the end of two weeks, the children who complete the challenge will be eligible for raffles with numerous prizes, including pedometers, footballs, even basketball hoop sets. Two tickets to the Ravens- Buccaneers game next month will likely be the most sought-after prize.
"This is a good project," said Tyler Macleod, the team's community relations intern. "We wanted to help out with the prizes." He turned to McClain for an assist.
"Jameel has a college background in communications," Macleod said. "He sure is physically fit. He eats right and stays active."
McClain helped keep the assembly active, too. He chose two girls and two boys for a relay race that involved stepping through a ladder stretched across the floor, jumping rope 10 times and running around a purple cone.
Beth Hustedt, a fourth-grader, whipped through the ladder, jumped with fierce speed and raced home with time to spare, giving the girls the win. All four competitors received a bag filled with prizes, including a jump rope, an autographed photo of a player and a football.
"Jumping was the hardest part for me," said Brennen Shaneybrook, a third-grader. "I am glad I got one so I can practice at home."
Beth, dressed in a Ravens shirt borrowed from her older brother, promised to share her winnings.
"I have three brothers and they all play football," she said. "Now, I have my own to throw at them."
Nearly every hand went up when McClain offered to take a few questions. He laughed at the first from a little girl who asked, "Can you take a picture with me?" With gentle prodding from teachers, the next queries were more on topic. Fifth-grader Amanya Goss asked, "How are you so successful?"
McClain replied, "Hard work and listening to a lot of wise people."
Bryant Gutknecht, a fifth-grader, wanted to know the best thing about being a Raven.
"I get to meet the fans," he said. "I am cheered on by a wonderful city and I run out of that tunnel with great players."
At the assembly's end, McClain waited in the doorway to shake hands with his young fans.
"It is important for kids to get an opportunity to see the players and get a personal connection," he said.