Buffalo Bills rookie linebacker Tremaine Edmunds wasn't going through the motions Tuesday as he read a book to a group of four third-grade students at the Stanley Makowski Early Childhood Center.
After a couple pages of "You and Me, Little Bear," Edmunds stopped and asked the four wide-eyed children, "Now do you think that was the right thing for Little Bear to do?"
The four paused, the wheels turning in their heads, before one blurted out, "No, he should have cleaned his room before he went out and played."
Seeing a light turn on gave Edmunds a smile and demonstrated the value of the visit by 21 Bills rookies to the Jefferson Avenue school.
The learning was going in both directions.
The Bills were delivering a message about the importance of taking school seriously. The students were giving the players a first glimpse of just how much of a big deal they are in the community.
Over the past 10 years, the Bills ran a tour of the city for their rookie class in early June. Rather than take a tour this year, the team decided to dive the rookies right into their community service obligation, followed by a side trip to the New Era Cap headquarters.
The Makowski Center has about 900 children grades pre-K to 4, along with about 200 faculty and staff. It seemed 90 percent of students and staff were wearing some type of Bills apparel. The Bills rookies split up and visited each classroom to get a one-on-one connection.
"It helps them understand the magnitude of their influence," said Marlon Kerner, Bills director of player engagement and alumni. "They're a role model whether they choose to be one or not. So you get to come to a school and see small kids who look up to you, and it sinks in a little more. Hopefully they understand all the stuff we're teaching them as they transition to being a professional athlete – make smart decisions because you never know who's watching. And you can be that influence to kids."
The little ones could not help but look up to the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Edmunds, the first-round pick from Virginia Tech. Edmunds, who just turned 20 a month ago, embraced the message he had to deliver.
"It starts here first, because without school we wouldn't be standing here," Edmunds told a group of first- and third-graders. "You have to go through middle school, high school, even college. And in college you're not allowed to play without a certain grade-point average. So without a good GPA you wouldn't even get the looks to perform in the NFL or whatever your dream is. So listen to everything the teachers are telling you because it's only going to make you better and wiser and smarter."
Undrafted rookie fullback Zach Olstad followed up: "Sometimes the school days can be long and you might not enjoy it some days. But it will pay off. . . . The two things you can control every day are your attitude and your effort. As long as you bring those two things you can accomplish anything."
The teachers nodded in agreement.
"To hear it from me is one thing, to hear it from their heroes makes it that much more important," said third-grade teacher Kim Kujawa. "They all want to play sports. They just think it happens, and it doesn't just happen. They were listening. I think they heard the message. You have to dream big. But you also have to keep the reality in mind that this is what I've got to do to get there."
Said first-grade teacher Melissa Hogues: "One of my students asked what do you do when you lose? For some reason they don't understand that everybody goes through ups and downs. It's really good for them to see that these big professional football players lose and they have to cope with it. They said they get sad but they have to keep trying and keep working hard. That was an excellent little interaction."
First-grader Savannah McGriff practically jumped out of her seat to show quarterback Josh Allen how well she can add and subtract on her tablet computer. She already takes pride in learning.
The educators were eager to take all the help they can get in nudging all the students in that direction.
"You have to do your best in school, it's the only way to make it," Hogues said. "They need to hear it as much as they can from family, professional athletes, the community, everyone."
Story topics: Tremaine Edmunds