Flacco gets hero's welcome at imperiled school, but a Baltimore teacher is the star
Flacco was on hand at Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore to honor Antonio Mason
BALTIMORE – In the eyes of some of this city's most at-risk students, it was at times difficult to determine precisely who was the bigger star. The cheers that pierced well beyond the small, humid gymnasium at Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School in North Baltimore and rang throughout the hallways and into the lobby were quite loud for the Super Bowl-winning quarterback who spent the afternoon there, but were probably even a little more vociferous for the Pro Bowl-caliber teacher the Baltimore Ravens were honoring on a sweltering Thursday afternoon.
Joe Flacco charmed students and staff at Hazelwood, answering questions from school kids, engaging with them on the blacktop and organizing an impromptu game of two-hand touch on the playing field, with you know who serving as all-time quarterback for both teams of third-graders. It's a day they will never forget, as the Ravens and their stadium naming-rights sponsor, M&T Bank, recognized Hazelwood teacher extraordinaire, Antonio Mason, as their grand-prize winner of their annual "Touchdown for Teachers" award, which included a much-needed $2,000 grant for this Baltimore City Public School. But it's Mason who impacts their lives daily, who serves as a de facto father for many of them who have no male figure at home, who acts as a life coach, role model and embodiment of hope for children largely left behind, whom no one could blame for feeling hopeless at times.
It was impressive watching Flacco give back to some of the most needy in a city with no shortage of problems and despair, but it was even more touching observing the way Mason, wearing a No. 17 Ravens jersey with "Mason" on the back, commanded the children's attention during the ceremony honoring him, serving as the emcee, getting an energetic room filled with a few hundred grade-school kids to settle down immediately with a friendly "one, two, three -- eyes on me," chant, and making Flacco, the guest of honor, feel at ease throughout the afternoon.
"You can see how much this school rallies around him," Flacco said about halfway through his time at Hazelwood, somewhat in awe.
Mason was chosen from this award from a pool of 475 applicants, and within 90 seconds of being in that gymnasium, it was clear he was the most worthy of recipients. For a school without an assistant principal for a long period of time, one short on resources, funding, equipment, technology -- an exterior reminiscent of an industrial building, with grates on some windows (think season four of "The Wire") -- Mason wears many hats, with his day beginning well before the first school bell of the morning and ending well after the final class is complete.
Hazelwood's 427 students are 94 percent African American and come from some of Baltimore's roughest neighborhoods -- 80 percent are eligible for a free lunch -- and its test scores are indicative of the steep odds these children face. It is not, however, short on love, with Mason, a military veteran who came to the school three years ago, a beacon of that emotion.
"He does this job because it is in his heart," said Amanda Rice, the school's principal, who was beaming with pride in her Flacco jersey. "Before anyone around here can even ask for help, Mr. Mason is already offering. It's never about him; it's always about helping these children and doing everything he can for them.
"A lot of our students are dealing with issues at home, and on Monday morning they pretty much just go straight to Mr. Mason. They'll come up to me and say, 'I have something I need to talk about, can I go to Mr. Mason?' He's doing this for them. These kids are in his heart."
Mason was a little starstruck ("I love football, and Mr. Flacco is my favorite player," he said), but it didn't show much. They stood side-by-side as the teacher called up students who had written prepared questions for the NFL quarterback and joked casually, and as the children yelled Mason's name after the presentation of the check to the school he told them how he felt for them ("I love you, too. I love you too.").
"For me it's not a career choice, it's a total lifestyle," Mason said later, and undoubtedly he could be earning much more having to do much less. "It's overwhelming to know the love and support I have from my student community … I want to make sure I'm looking out for all of their social or emotional issues that might arise and I've got to give my 150 percent for these students, because that's what really matters."
Flacco answered questions about what he would be doing if he wasn't a professional football player ("I hope I would doing something as great as what Mr. Mason is doing," he replied) and when he started playing football (all his life on the schoolyard, but not quarterback until high school). He urged the kids to stay active and play as many sports as they can, and was asked what's the best part of being a Raven.
"Putting on that purple jersey every week with my teammates and representing the community of Baltimore," he said.
Then Mason announced which classes could head outside first, and shortly Flacco followed. He joined a group of kids chatting in the shade on a hill next to the playground, asking how old they were and what sports they liked to play. "Why aren't you guys running around?" he inquired. "Come on guys, let's go over to the field."
Soon enough he had organized a game of touch football on the grass, dividing up Mason's third-grade boys into two teams. "You guys are on offense and you guys are on defense -- no kickoffs," he said. You could forgive the $20 million quarterback for over-throwing his first pass deep into a bush -- he's used to receivers considerably bigger and faster -- and it wasn't long before Flacco was serving as commissioner ("Two catches is a first down"), head official ("He tagged you, first down, let's spot the ball here … you're out of bounds but it's a first down"), and star player (on the first fourth down he faced, Flacco sent all his receivers deep then raced the length of the field on a keeper for the score).
Flacco was having a blast. Already accustomed to having a limited receiving group around him and with limited weapons around him most of his career, he easily adapted to this makeshift group. ("You guys are all going too deep and everybody's covered," he playfully chided the kids at one point.) He nearly threw an early interception ("My man over the middle is trying to bait me!") and did get picked off late in the game ("Aw man, he picked me off!), but hustled to make the touch tackle himself. He loved giving the youngsters a hard time, including one kid who juked through the entire other defense for a score ("You made one good move and now you're already tired?" he joked back in the huddle).
Once a winning team had been determined, some of the middle school kids, who had been waiting patiently for a half-hour, asked if Flacco could throw a few passes to them, which he immediately obliged. "Run the post route, and go all the way down, as far as you can go," Flacco implored one tall and athletic eighth grader who made the catch with ease ("That was pretty smooth right there," Flacco noted).
By then, some of the children were doing interviews on camera with a local television station, the playground was alive and vibrant with the sounds of kids, carefree and having fun. Mason was chatting with Rice getting ready to round the kids up to get back to their classrooms before dismissal, his work still not done, but the rewards as rich as ever.
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