ST. PAULS — Seeing is believing — at least that’s what Vonta Leach hopes.
Before he began speaking to a crowd of fourth- and fifth-grade students at St. Pauls Elementary School on Thursday, the Baltimore Ravens fullback said he wanted them to know that growing up in a small town doesn’t mean that they can’t be destined for big things.
“I’m from a small town, and now I’m in the big leagues, and even went on to win a Super Bowl,” he said. “A lot of kids might have heard about me or know about me, but seeing me is different.”
Excited children began to pour into the school’s auditorium at about 9:30 a.m., some with mouths agape. Long before they had arrived, star-struck adults posed for photos and asked Leach to sign autographs.
Susan Hasirci, vice president of the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization, clutched a piece of paper Leach had just signed.
“I helped him win the Super Bowl,” she said. “I’m glad no one was at home to see me, because I was running with him.”
Six-year-old Emma Scott got a sneak peek of the star — and let him hold her for a photo. When asked if she was excited, she gave an enthusiastic head nod; but her mother Elizabeth was more vocal.
“I’ll be putting the photo on Facebook, and I’m gonna print it out and say, ‘look who I met,’” she said.
Trevon Bain, 10, took a seat in the front row of a cluster of metal chairs that had been assembled for the occasion.
“I’m excited because he won the Super Bowl,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a football player at our school before.”
Stephanie Holloman, also 10, had a simpler reason to be excited.
“Because he’s famous,” she yelled from her seat, three chairs down from Bain’s.
For Mable Revels, Leach’s visit was an invitation to a trip down memory lane — to Southside Ashpole, where she worked from 1971 to 1991, a time during which Leach attened the elementary school.
“It makes you feel so good to see people who didn’t disappoint you so much after all these years,” she said. “And he’s not the only one, so much good has come out of both schools, but he has really done some wonderful things.”
While speaking to the students, Leach said when it comes to their goals, the sky is the limit.
“Anything that you dream and you think, you can do,” said Leach, who is 31. “… I grew up in a single-parent home. It was just me, my mom and my brother, but she made a way for us.”
Leach said his friends used to laugh at him for having a curfew, but some of those same friends did not grow up to be successful. He said being involved in sports, from basketball to baseball and then football, also kept him out of trouble.
He also said he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play football if he hadn’t kept his grades up. Leach said he was offered a full scholarship in ninth grade, and before he left high school he had 30 scholarships, including the one he accepted to attend East Carolina University.
“In middle school and high school, grades have to become a priority,” he said. “… There’s so many good athletes who didn’t get the chance to play because they didn’t have the grades.”
Leach told the students to make small goals and stick to them, and to finish what they start.
“I was cut from the NFL four different times,” he said. “… I could have easily given up. I could have said, you know, this is too tough for me. … But if I had given up I wouldn’t be able to have done what I wanted to do.
“Growing up as a little child, that’s what you always dream about,” he said of winning the Super Bowl. “And it came true.”
Leach answered questions from children who lined up excitedly at the front of the gym, ranging from “how old are you,” to “where’s Ray Lewis,” and “can you run fast?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty fast,” he answered with a smile. “I may be able to beat you.”
Leach was a third-time all-Pro performer this year for Baltimore, but didn’t get to play in the showcase game because he was preparing for the Super Bowl, which the Ravens won 34-31 over the San Francisco 49ers.
Leach, a graduate of South Robeson High School, is known for his charity work, providing a free summer football camp for area youths, donating equipment to local football programs, and holding a Christmas shopping spree each year for children who might otherwise not receive gifts.
Abbi Overfelt works for Civitas Media as editor of The Red Springs Citizen and The St. Pauls Review.