There is nothing quite like the smell of a high school football locker room on a mid-August morning. Sitting on a bench outside of a few lockers, the compulsion to scrub my body with OXY pads as soon as I could was beginning to drive me insane. Pierre Garcon sat down in the coach's office wearing a burgundy and gold polo and black jeans, mostly with his eyes on his phone as the coaches gathered up a few rogue players who found excuses to go back to the lock room. We were at the first stop of what would be a tour of three high schools in DC, Maryland and Virginia who won a contest on Pierre's Facebook page to win new Russell Athletic football jerseys.
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Northern Virginia's own little version of Hogwarts (or X-Mansion if that analogy works better for you). In 2000 Mandy Moore performed a concert at TJHSST as a result of a radio contest sponsored by Z104. Several TJHSST students wrote a number of various computer scripts that generated rapid, automatic votes for TJHSST, giving them the win by a wide margin. Growing up in Northern Virginia, losing football games to TJ was always demoralizing because they were supposed to be the "nerdy" kids. It was a lesson better learned early on that it's usually brains over brawn in life.
In some twist of fate in the universe, or society, I found myself watching Pierre Garcon, a 27 year old football player with a bachelor's in communications, was giving life lessons to a group of future engineers and scientists. The same Pierre Garcon who missed two years of high school football because he couldn't make the grades to stay eligible.
"I made things hard on myself," Garcon said as we climbed into the truck to take us to an early lunch in DC, "I thought because I was fast I didn't need the grades, I would just go to any D1 school I wanted."
You'd never guess it talking to him now that he was a knucklehead growing up. Soft spoken, articulate, thoughtful and generous when talking to fans and young footballers alike, I was blown away at his ability to grant every request with a big, bright smile and a "no problem, no problem at all".
We sat through a couple of radio interviews outside of Roosevelt Senior High School in DC, a world away from TJ in Alexandria. The Roughriders were only able to muster about half of their team for this special occasion, something that I got the sense was embarrassing for the Roosevelt staff but was very humbling and powerful for Pierre and the rest of us.
"I just want to say thank you," Roosevelt Principal Ivor Mitchell shook Pierre's hand with both his hands. "You just don't understand what this means to these kids." He began shaking his head in disbelief, "you know these kids always hear about this kind of thing happening to other schools and their whole lives they are waiting and wondering when they'll just get a little help."
Pierre went from smiling and deflecting the praise to staring right into Mitchell's eyes as the Principal continued, "you know I wish we had everyone here but you know how it is, these kids got jobs and responsibilities and it was an off day--"Pierre stopped him and gave him another one of those "no problem, it's no problem at all".
The walk back to the cars took us past a wall painting in the hallway of Sean Taylor. I pointed it out and noticed Pierre stop and read the quote underneath the picture. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised by the way he seemed to take in the moment.
"You know man, we're all from there," Garcon said while examining the portrait. "You grow up watching and playing around the same guys he played with. When he died that hit close to home to me for a lot of different reasons."
Boston Market at White Oak Shopping Center was lunch. It's interesting traveling with a fairly recognizable name like Pierre Garcon with a fairly unrecognizable face. He isn't particularly tall, loud or flashy so it's great hearing people talk about the Redskins in line at a Boston Market with Garcon laughing right behind them. It was about 3:30 at this point, we had been on the road since 8 AM. The day was starting to take its toll on Pierre as he rested his face on his hand, scrolling through his twitter timeline in a Boston Market induced turkey coma. We poured ourselves back into the SUV's for the short trip to Springbrook High School.
"One last stop," she said letting out a deep breath.
Set up in the locker room serving as a green room for Garcon was a spread of homemade sandwiches and desserts for Pierre and the crew made by a team mom. Not wanting to disappoint, he gladly scarfed down some carrot cake and a lettuce wrap whilst signing autographs for coaches and their kids. After revealing the new jerseys and taking pictures with the team, Pierre opened up the floor to questions, presenting a great interaction with one of the academic administrators.
"Pierre," she said with the most teachery tone you can possibly imagine. "Can you talk a little bit about the importance of academics and education when playing sports?"
Pierre's thoughtful expression turned to one of smiles and embarrassed laughter. "You know I never made good grades," he admitted while rubbing his forehead. "I actually missed two years of football because I couldn't get my act together, so I had to go to a division III school and really set myself apart and work hard to get to where I am now. I had to work twice as hard because I set myself back. I didn't know about SAT's and ACT's but then I got to college, started off on the right track and kept my grades up and was able to stay on that right track and now I'm in the NFL."
The administrator came up to Garcon as he was leaving to comment on how great an answer he gave and to thank him. She had tears in her eyes.
"No problem. No problem at all."
As the day came to a close I could sense Pierre was getting tired of the cameras and the microphones. Garcon visited all three schools in one day, hours after playing on Monday Night Football the previous evening. On each stop of the 40-plus mile trek and nearly eight-hour day, Garcon delivered the uniforms, gave an inspiring pep talk to each team, and finished with a Q&A while meeting with high school players and community members, signing autographs and taking photos. Not once did I see him deny a single autograph or picture, even with the Russell Athletic guys (bless their hearts, they did a great job) trying to keep him on schedule.
"I was just sitting on my couch one day and just trying to figure out something I could do," he said, making his final remarks on the day. "I got to give it up to Russell Athletic for helping me give back to the Washington DC community in such an impactful way," said Garcon. "Seeing the look on these kids' faces, it definitely reminds me how fortunate I am to be in the NFL and have a platform to make such a difference in their lives."