FANWOOD, NJ - Most of us remember Phys Ed as a class where you learned basic sports skills and had a break from classroom learning. Fanwood resident and Jersey City Middle School 7 teacher Allen Gross has discovered a way to use sports to teach life lessons by inviting famous athletes to tell their inspiring stories to his students, who come from poor, often broken homes. Even the least athletic kid can appreciate meeting coaching legends, Hall of Fame athletes, and working sportscasters.
How do you choose who you invite to speak at your school?
First and foremost, I look for a connection to Jersey City or to New Jersey. Have they overcome a major obstacle in their life? Did they do something special like win a Gold medal, win a championship, or become a Hall of Famer?
How do you get in touch with them?
I write many letters each year, hoping the phone rings and I get email communication from the athlete or their representative. Former major league pitcher Jim Kaat, who won 283 games and 16 Gold Glove Awards, and beat Sandy Koufax in a 1965 World Series game, came to my school. We spoke quite a few times on the phone before his visit, and afterwards he invited my wife and me to attend a Yankee game sitting in the TV booth as he broadcast the game. He even put us on television and discussed his visit to my school.
Is it a hard sell getting famous folks to come to Jersey City?
It is always a challenge. Sometimes, you find people that want to be paid for their visit. We are an inner-city public school, so paying for an appearance is simply not in the cards. We have raised a few hundred dollars on occasion with school jeans day to support a charity that our guest would be affiliated with. On the flip side, being five minutes from the Holland Tunnel can be a blessing to get people to come to Jersey City. I truly believe that if I taught in Scotch Plains, or another suburban school, my success rate in getting guests to visit would not compare.
Why do you do this?
If our guest can inspire just ONE student to chase a dream, than their visit is a success.
What do you want them to learn?
I want them to learn that just because you may not have much today, it does not mean that you can not reach for the stars and be successful.
How did you get the idea to invite athletes to your school?
I have always considered myself a sports historian and a memorabilia collector. So, If my students can learn something, be inspired, and go home with an autographed photo, it’s a successful program. The ultimate would be if one of my students will become famous and come back and be a guest speaker at MS7.
What impact does it have on the kids?
I have always believed that my students need positive role models in their lives. There is no disputing the need to be good in math, reading, and writing. Yet, the impact of an hour program on my students can be life-changing. I also believe that our guests leave with a sense of fulfillment as well.
Who was the most moving speaker?
A week before the anniversary of Eric LeGrand’s career-ending injury, he came to our school. It was his first speaking engagement of any kind outside of Rutgers. I communicated with his mother before their visit. I had many guests address my students before, but never one in a wheel chair. We had to think about ramps, the temperature in the auditorium, explaining to my students that there will be no autographs and hand shakes. For every event, I contact the local media. You never really know what to expect. That day was as special as any I have ever had.
The following day, there were articles in the local papers, and my work phone was constantly ringing with requests for Eric’s contact info. CBS Sports Network called to interview me and my students for a TV spot. One of our students at the program is blind and wanted to meet Eric. They spoke for a few minutes. It was clear that Eric offered his words of wisdom to our student and told him that he can use the faculties that he has to be successful. The ability to communicate is key.
A few months later, my wife gets an email from a Scotch Plains/Fanwood parent asking if her husband is a Phys. Ed. Teacher in Jersey. She replied, “yes”. Little did we know that chapter 13 in Eric’s book is how much his visit to our school affected him. I was so touched. I immediately told my administration and we ordered a few books for our school library. I touched base with Eric and his mother and thanked them. To forever be connected to Eric is so special. Since his visit to MS7, I wear a bELieve 52 bracelet made for him. I vowed to be at the game when Eric walks back to the spot where he made the tackle.
Is it awkward when they have no clue who a person is?
It is not awkward at all. In order to prepare my students for the event, they all receive a bio on the athlete and are asked to write three to five questions each. I review the questions ahead of time and select the top 20 to be used at the assembly. No students go into the program wondering, “Who is that?”
It takes a lot of people to pull these events off. First, I need permission from three administrators from our Drama teacher to take over the auditorium. The secretaries make copies of the photos to be signed. The school tech coordinator makes posters for the program, and secures students to take photos and video for the school. We get student chaperones to escort the guest into our school. I couldn’t do it all by myself.
Name your most famous guests.
One day we had three members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame visit: Larry Little from the 1972 undefeated Dolphins, Carl Eller of the famed Minnesota Vikings’ Purple People Eaters, and Bobby Bell. Before the program, Bobby Bell, who played in Super Bowl I for the Kansas City Chiefs, decided to tickle the ivories and play the piano in our auditorium. He played the most beautiful classical music. Having three legends on the same day was like scoring the Super Bowl-winning touchdown!
Eric LeGrande included his visit to your school in his autobiography. How does that make you feel?
Touched beyond belief. Sometimes, athletes come and go and I usually feel that the students are inspired by the visit. In this case, to have included us in his book -- that was the ultimate! It clearly meant a lot to him as well. Since that day, he has spoken to many schools, businesses, teams, etc around the country.
Who do you think had the most impact on the students?
We have been blessed to hear so many wonderful stories over the last 20 plus years, but Eric LeGrand’s has to be #1 as far as impact goes.
What is the most memorable story that a guest has shared?
Bobby Thomson was asked the most unusual place someone was when he hit the most famous homerun in history. The answer was a soldier was in a fox hole in Korea and was listening on the radio when Thomson hit “The Shot Heard Round the World.” The soldier jumped up… and shots were fired back and forth!
Who is next on your invite list?
I am always sending out letters and hoping for replies. You simply never know.
Some of Allen Gross’s most famous guests include:
Bob Hurley Sr.: Coaching legend, Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, and Jersey City native.
Chuck Wepner: Boxer who fought Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title. (“The movie Rocky was based on his fight.”)
Harry Carson: Pro Football Hall of Famer, NY Giants legend.
Ann Donovan: Basketball Hall of Famer and 6’8” coach of the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun. (“She brought multiple Gold Medals with her for students to pass around and try on.”)
Monica Wright: Two-time WNBA Champion from the Minnesota Lynx.
Ed Lucas: Blind reporter who has covered the Yankees since the 1950’s.
Billy Taylor: Former N.Y. Giants running back and broadcaster. (“Not the most famous speaker, but maybe the best motivator I ever heard.”)
John Sterling: The Voice of the N.Y. Yankees (He recounted the last out of the 2000 World Series for the students and said, “The Yankees win, Theeee Yankeeeeeeeees win!)