Features | Friday Night Drive

Bennett Williams, Tigers bring ‘2nd and 7′ to the second grade

Princeton High School football players Danny Cihocki (left), Teegan Davis and Augie Christiansen read to second-grade students at Jefferson School on Monday afternoon as part of the “2nd and 7 Reading Initiative program." It is the first program started in Illinois.

Bennett Williams has faced many a 2nd and 7s on the football field.

He brought a 2nd and 7 to the second grade.

Williams, a junior lineman for Princeton’s 3A quarterfinalists, spearheaded a “2nd and 7 Reading Initiative program” to read to the five second grade classes at Jefferson School in Princeton this week. It’s the first one implemented in the state of Illinois.

The “2nd and 7 Reading Initiative” was co-founded by Tennessee Titans coach and former NFL star Mike Vrabel. Its mission is to “promote reading by free books and positive role models to kids in need,” while encouraging student-athletes to help “tackle illiteracy” at the second grade level.

Williams said he noticed how much the little kids looked up to the PHS football players after games seeking pictures with them and wanted to see what he could do for the kids and learned about the “2nd and 7 Reading Initiative” program online.

“I thought what better than to go read to the kids and it helps with illiteracy in the United States,” he said.

Williams reached out to his former second grade teacher, Heidi Anderson, and she helped get everything started. PHS principal Andy Berlinski was all on board with the project, allowing the high schoolers to leave during homeroom.

Anderson said the Tigers were all looked upon like rock stars to her second graders.

“To say the kids were excited is an understatement,” she said. “They could see and hear the football players in the hallway and anticipated the door knock like it was Christmas morning. It was a sight to behold.”

Teegan Davis, the Tigers’ easy-going all-state quarterback, was especially a big hit, Williams said.

“We walked into the classrooms and Teegan popped in and everyone gets crazy. It’s awesome,” Williams said.

Davis said he enjoyed it as much as the kids.

“Loved it. So much fun getting to go hangout with the little kids,” he said. “I can’t say I read much to them. The kids could probably read better than me, but it was just a great time. It’s always awesome getting to go see the little kids and they look up to us and admire us so much. It’s just a true pleasure to go see them.”

Anderson said each student got their own book and followed along with the football players as they read aloud.

“They were so focused, so still and completely immersed in the activity,” she said.

When the players were done reading, they talked about school, working hard, getting good grades and the importance of reading. Anderson said she prepared her kids about what questions could be asked before the football players’ arrival and she was impressed by how well they listened and answered.

“I think the second graders even surprised the guys with some of their answers,” Anderson said.

Anderson said the time in her classroom surely meant as much to the big kids as it did the little ones, if not more.

“Perhaps it was just the lift they needed and deserved after the difficult loss on Saturday. I saw those boys smiling from ear to ear from start to finish,” she said.

Williams said it was a learning experience for the football players.

“We didn’t really realize how much they looked up to us until we saw the excitement they had seeing us and being in the room working with us,” he said. “Definitely reminds me how much we looked up to them (high schoolers) when we were in their shoes.”

Tiger football coach Ryan Pearson said his kids are winners on and off the field.

“Our kids are the best. Very successful on the field, but even better young men off of it. Great role models for the younger generation to look up to,” he said.

No doubt the players left a lasting impression.

“The next day one of my second graders said to another, ‘I wonder what Payne (Miller) and Bennett are doing right now?’ The other said, ‘Probably reading,’” Anderson said. “It truly was magical and my heart was full seeing the second graders ooze excitement to see their role models up close and personal. They all need the positive mentorship.”

Williams is already making plans to return once a month to read to the kids, rotating sports teams throughout the school year.

Kevin Hieronymus has been the BCR Sports Editor since 1986. Contact him at khieronymus@bcrnews.com