Justin Hopkins grew up idolizing Van’s football players, hoping to eventually become one. While in elementary school, he often got the opportunity to hang out with the Vandals on game days.
“Just going over there and seeing their faces — I can’t believe I looked like them,” he said.
Each Friday morning for the past 10 years, Van’s football players have visited the local elementary schools to mentor students in such subjects as reading and, well, simply being cool. The program was started by former Vandals head coach and athletic director Brady Pennington, who wanted the players to understand the importance of being positive role models on and off the field.
“The little kids look up to them, and the little ones are always watching,” elementary teacher Kelli Cassell said. “It was to help make them conscious of their actions.”
Whether a senior All-American like former linebacker Dalton Santos or a sophomore simply trying to earn a spot on the varsity, each Vandal is treated like a star by the elementary kids. Stats and status aren’t what opens their eyes and widens their smiles when that red jersey walks through the door — it being worn by a Vandal is all that’s needed.
“There are some of the kids that will read to the class and answer questions,” said current Vandals head coach Jared Moffat, a father of four young boys. In “my kids’ classes, she integrates the football players into their lesson, help the teachers check answers, give out stickers and be judges in contests. For me, one of the great things about being in a small town is that the kids at the elementary school can identify with those players.”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Van football is successful on the field.
After Friday night’s home victory against Brownsboro, the Vandals were 7-1 on the year after falling only once during the 2011 regular season. That means the playoffs are once again the likely destination during the next month, something that fires the locals up each Friday night.
“All I looked forward to was Friday to see my football player come talk to me and take me outside,” senior receiver Austin Lockwood said. “I couldn’t wait to go to the game. I would sit in the stands and look for his number. I looked up to him like he was a superstar.”
Senior quarterback Garrett Smallwood said: “It makes me feel good that the little kids look up to us. I get lots of pictures drawn for me and get bags of candy and all kinds of stuff.”
Moffatt, who came to East Texas from Denton Ryan when Pennington left the helm, wishes he could take credit for the program. He’d never been involved in something like it before.
“In two and a half years being the head football coach and being involved in the program, we wouldn’t stop unless something made us,” Moffatt said. “I see the impact that it has one the high school players. I can also see both ends of it because I have four kids.”
Although each player actively takes part in the program, some have a personality that allows them to get more involved with the students.
“Two that come to mind are Dalton Santos and his little brother (Santos),” Moffatt said. “He loves going over there. He gets in there with the kids and eats it up. He’s reading a story, he’s being expressive and those kids are intense. At the same time you have some kids that are shy and it’s a little bit harder for them. You can’t be shy in that classroom because the kids won’t let you be shy.”
Hopkins has experienced that from both sides of the equation.
“I remember how I looked up to the football players,” he said. “Now they are looking the same at me.”