CHAMPAIGN – The aim of the assembly at South Side Elementary School Tuesday afternoon was to encourage students to read, develop healthy habits and be respectful – goals that many elementary teachers are likely talking about at the start of the school year.
But this gathering began with chants of "I-L-L, I-N-I," and the appearance of special guests introduced as "superstars" by literacy specialist Amanda Bell. Illinois quarterback Juice Williams and wide receiver Arrelious Benn were at South Side to represent the "run" portion of the "Read, Run, Respect" program happening at the school all this month.
The football players usually talk to older audiences, but both said they love seeing little kids.
"We get ovations a lot, but when you see little kids doing it, it really humbles you," Williams said.
Benn said the younger fans look up to the players they see on TV, and it gives them a chance to influence them earlier in life.
"How many of you like school?" Benn asked the students. "I love school."
"How many of you like recess?" he asked, as every hand shot up.
He asked how many had done their homework, and told them his favorite subject was history.
The South Side students also learned that Williams' favorite snack used to be Honey Buns.
"It tasted good, but it's not that healthy," he told them, adding that now he eats granola bars, apples or some other type of fruit for snacks.
Williams also talked to the children about schoolwork.
"You see me and Arrelious out there on the football team, and you don't think about academics. You just thinking about us making plays," he said. But they need to think about studying and going to school and be able to play football, he said.
The two signed autographs that would be copied for all the students – eliciting a loud cheer from the kids – and they listened to fifth-grade teacher Jaime Roundtree rap at the close of the program.
"That was a first," Williams said after he and Benn briefly joined in on the rap.
South Side Principal Bill Taylor said he wants to establish a relationship between the school and the athletics department at the University of Illinois. He is friends with offensive football coordinator Mike Locksley, and talked with him about having some football players visit the school at the start of the year. Taylor was able to arrange to have Williams and Benn speak through the athletics department's Hometown Heroes program.
Bell said the "Read, Run, Respect" program fits with the school's curriculum and is an incentive for the children to read and exercise during the first month of school, as well as to build a sense of community. The students will keep track of the time they spend reading, exercising and showing respect, at school and at home.
South Side received money from a C-U Schools Foundation Splash Grant and several sponsors to buy book sacks, wristbands, pencils, T-shirts and healthy snacks for the students.