NEWTON, NJ - Two big men came to visit Newton's youngest students last Thursday, bringing their positive message of the possibility of big dreams and the necessity of hard work. Otis Jerome “OJ” Anderson and Stephen Baker, former Giants football players and Superbowl champions visited Merriam Avenue school where they not only addressed some of the children in an assembly, they also took the time to visit every classroom and met every student that was in the building that day.
The three men passed the time waiting for the assembly time by signing photos and footballs. Baker was very well prepared with a large bag of markers of all sizes and colors carried in his backpack.
Moving out to the hallway for some photos, the duo interacted with children on their way to lunch. Anderson decided to join them, jumping into the line of students waiting to buy lunch. Joined by Baker, they talked with the children as they continued into the kitchen, where students made their lunch selections. The children were unfazed about having real Giants in their midst, answering the visitors' questions about how the lunch room operation worked.
Next came the main event. Anderson, Baker and Doug Steinhardt, friend and attorney for New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, entered the gymnasium where students were waiting. Anderson was the first to speak, first thanking the school's Principal Kevin Stanton, Assistant Principal Kenney Lutz and Superintendent Dr Kennedy Greene. "When we come out to do stuff and see you come out of your office to hear us it means a lot."
Baker explained they both had a background in education. Baker was a permanent substitute for 15 years at James Jay Flint School in Perth Amboy.
Anderson got his degree in education from the University of Miami.
Anderson, armed with the knowledge that Newton is primarily a walking district he asked the students what time they woke up for school. Asking for a show of hands, he started at 5 a.m. then 6, then 7. With Merriam Avenue’s first bell at 8:27, Anderson scolded those that arose at 8 a.m. "So -you just by-pass breakfast?"
Baker spoke next explaining he was a permanent substitute for 15 years. "Your teachers have done a great job with you." Continuing the praise of teachers Baker said, "I've always said they should be paid like athletes."
He next asked the students to tell him their dream for their future. He got answers such as football player and actor. "Believe it or not OJ and I had a dream, like you." Baker explained, even as a young boy he dreamed of playing in the NFL. He did not have the opportunity to play organized football until high school, at which time he "applied himself more to sports than his school work."
As a high school senior he dislocated his shoulder and was unable to play in college as expected. He attended a "junior college" instead. Baker explained he decided to spend his free time in the library studying, getting his grades up and allowing him to go to study and play football at Fresno State.
Baker told the story of his seventh grade teacher Mr Husby who scoffed at his dream in front of the whole class. "Are you kidding me?" was Husby's response to Baker's NFL aspirations. Baker told the children after "catching a touchdown in the Superbowl," he said to the television camera "that's for your Mr Husby."
Baker concluded, "You have to push yourselves and you can achieve your dreams."
Anderson came back to the microphone, speaking with the children about homework. "Kid's we do not like homework do we?" Commiserating with students about homework he said, "I thought my teachers didn't like me because I wanted to play, not do homework." Then he turned it around by telling a personal story about not bothering to study his weekly list of spelling words. Arriving at school to find out there was a spelling bee, he was embarrassed by not being able to spell the word "’word,’ because I didn't study." The next time he only studied a few minutes before school and did not see all the words and was out again.
Anderson used this personal story to encourage the children "When you get homework, go home and do it. If you do that, it will be a cake walk when you get to junior high and high school. Not doing it makes life hard.” He said if he could go back and change one thing it would be "I would start here" at elementary school.
His parting advice brought the discussion full circle back to teachers. "Listen to them. All they are trying to do is to make it easier for you. Pay attention in the classroom. Trust your ability-don't let anyone tell you that you can't."
While Anderson was speaking Baker had been moving through the audience allowing students to hold his Superbowl trophy.
The children were invited to ask questions. Anderson was asked if he wanted to be a football player "when he was little." Answer; "No, I wanted to be a chef."
"Did you retire at the same time?" "Yes."
"Did you have a pet?" Anderson: "Yes, I had a white rabbit named Snowball."
"Did you have another dream?" Anderson: "To come back to elementary school and do my work better."
"Did you have an injury?" Anderson: "Yes, many."
"What was your favorite subject." Baker: "Math"
"Did you always win every game?" Anderson: "No"
"Did you always shake your opponents hand, even if you lost?" Anderson: "Yes, win, lose or draw. You should always do that."
"Do you play another sport other than football?" Anderson: "Golf."
"Is this trophy real?" Baker: "Is that jersey you are wearing real? Yes, it's real."
Referring to the trophy, Baker said, "This is what it was all about for me as a kid, so I take it with me to show dreams can come true."
For the next few hours the men walked the halls of Merriam Avenue School with Principal Stanton and Vice Principal Lutz. They made sure they visited every classroom. They did not rebuff any child or staff member's request for an autograph. The two Giants eagerly engaged the children and staff, asking them questions and earnestly listening to the responses. Students and staff had photos taken with the gentlemen.
Anderson and Baker even stopped at the sight of a student in tears. "Oh no, please don't cry. Come on, give us a smile," they said. Anderson even took a moment to fix a braid that had come undone. "That's pretty good for such big fingers," remarked her teacher.
In the main officer earlier in the day, Superintendent Dr Greene shared that he was a football player in high school and later returned as a coach.
Anderson said, "It's great when you can give back to your community."
Baker added, "When kids see it they say 'wow, he was a student here and look how you turned out.'"
The visit was made possible because of a connection made by the assistant principal and attorney Doug Steinhardt when Lutz worked at a school in Jersey City. Among his many achievements and activities beyond his practice with Florio Perrucci Steinhardt & Fader, Steinhardt represents New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority.
Anderson and Baker, or "OJ" and "Bake" as they call each other, attribute the opportunity to interact with children "way out in the country," to Steinhardt. "Working with Doug is easy to do," adding they look forward to spending time with the youth.
Steinhardt responded saying they both are "too modest. It is something to watch them interact with kids of every demographic. It is a tribute to them that they give their time to motivate kids."