Standing at 6-feet 3 and weighing in at more than 240 pounds of pure muscle, Minnesota Viking linebacker Ben Leber towered over the elementary students at Jolley School in Vermillion Friday afternoon.
He had no problem, however, communicating a message at their level about a topic so important to him that he traveled to his hometown to deliver it personally.
It was a simple nudging by the 1997 Vermillion High School graduate who has completed his eighth year playing professionally in the National Football League to do two simple things. Drink more water. And play. Outdoors. In the fresh air. For at least an hour a day.
"Congratulations to all of you for doing the NFL 'Play 60,' which is a great initiative, especially for kids of your age where fitness and nutritional information, and learning about your bodies is so important," Leber said.
The "Play 60" initiative is designed to help battle childhood obesity and inactivity. It was introduced in Vermillion Friday, April 9, with the help of Leber and USD's Health Care Reform and the Role of Consumer Responsibility, part of USD's Interdisciplinary Education and Action (IdEA) Program. Joining Leber in the school gym were 33 USD students who, earlier in the day, helped educate Jolley kids about healthy lifestyles centered on diet and exercise.
And following the session in the gymnasium with Leber, everyone put what they learned into practice with several playground activities, ranging from stretching and exercising, to tossing a football and working up a sweat playing a rousing game of tag.
Before the outdoor activities began, however, Leber immediately posed a challenge to the students who sat on the floor of the small gymnasium in the elementary school, held captive by the sight of a man they regularly see tackling opposing ball carriers during every televised Vikings' game.
"What's the easiest way that you can make a change in your diet and nutrition?" he asked.
Leber received a variety of answers, and ultimately held up a bottle of water.
"This is the number one way that you guys can make a major change in your lives," he said. "It's as simple as this. How many of you kids love soda pop?"
Dozens of students' hands shot skyward.
"It's a good thing, and it's a bad thing," Leber said. "I'm not telling you that you can't have the sweet stuff. But I'm telling you, if you cut down a little bit on your soda and a little bit on your sweets and you drink more water, you guys are going to be way more healthier than I was when I was your age.
"If you take nothing else away from this small session we're having today – put down the sodas, and the game controllers, and drink water," he said. "And the whole idea behind the 'Play 60' program is to have you guys go out and enjoy playing – to just go outside and play for 60 minutes every day."
Leber told the assembly of students that while growing up in Vermillion, it wasn't uncommon for he and his friends to spend summer days, from sunup until sundown, outdoors, simply playing, doing everything from riding and running races with friends to playing catch.
"Go outside and just play, embrace it. Be kids. Be inventive. You guys are all creative, and you can make up all sorts of different games, whether it's playing tag or riding bikes," he said. "One thing that we would do as kids is we'd get together and have our own game of Olympics. We would toss things around, have relay races around the neighborhood, and just play.
Leber brought boxes of gifts with him that he admits are "a bit corny," but will hopefully be enough incentive for the young people to adopt a more active lifestyle.
"Some of you may enjoy these, and some of you may not," he told the students. "But when I was your age, when we would make up games, whatever it was, we would see who could run the farthest or make the most jumps with a jump rope, or see how fast we could ride our bikes in a certain amount of time.
"So, I have a stopwatch for every one of you," Leber said. "I know it's not exciting, but I want you guys to take these stopwatches, and use them to play games. Use them to be competitive. And, even when you're by yourself – see how many push-ups you can do in 30 seconds. See how many sit-ups you can do in 30 seconds. There are so many things."
He admitted to his audience that he was a bit of a nerd when he was a kid, but he always enjoyed carrying his father's stopwatch while outside playing. "I would just have fun with it."
Mary Derby, director of the Health Services Administration Program at USD and an instructor for the class, said her university students wanted to do something special to promote wellness and health care.
"I'm a big advocate of necessary reform to our healthcare system," she said, "but I also believe that we as a population need to start taking more responsibility for our own behaviors. We're more likely to get people to incorporate exercise into their daily routine if they start at a younger age."
Derby's students, as well as staff and administrators at Jolley Elementary, were pleased to introduce the NFL's "Play 60" initiative to the local youngsters.
In addition to promoting the initiative, Derby's students have written lesson plans for Jolley Elementary P.E. teachers, participated in afternoon recesses with second through fifth grade students, and developed nutritional messages for morning announcements at the school.
A huge football fan, especially of the Minnesota Vikings, Derby learned of Leber's support of "Play 60" and, along with Jolley Principal Mark Upward and guidance counselor Barb Schwartz, coordinated the Vikings' linebacker's visit to Jolley.
"I knew that Ben is a Vermillion native, being a Viking fan myself, and I asked Barb (Schwartz) to see if he would be willing to do this, and he was very willing, right from the start," Derby said. "He is very excited about the program, and has been wonderful to work with."
The USD professor's class secured grant funding from the IdEA program to have laminated charts prepared that will help the students in each classroom at Jolley record the progress they make this spring in achieving their fitness goals.
"We hope that this will continue beyond this semester and that they can use those tools to continue this program for many years to come," she said.
Leber urged he Jolley students again to use their imaginations and actively play, rather than becoming spellbound by video games.
"You guys just have to go out and enjoy being kids," he said.