Nease welcomed more than 80 differently abled students from four St. Johns County elementary schools for a field day of activities during Friday’s Victory Day.
There were 33 varsity touchdowns scored on the pristine grass at Nease’s football field this fall.
None of those mattered as much Friday as the touchdowns that were scored by the more than 80 elementary school students from Cunningham Creek, Timberlin Creek, Ward’s Creek and Valley Ridge Academy.
Students were invited to Nease High School on Friday afternoon as part of Victory Day, an afternoon of activities where Nease football players and coaches worked with differently abled students from those four schools in a series of football drills that emphasized teamwork, hard work and the importance of service.
“It’s another opportunity for learning outside the classroom,” said Amy Willingham, whose son, Zac, was among those who participated. “Especially my son, he learns by doing. That’s what a lot of kids need. They don’t sit and learn like a typical child does.”
Zac, like his parents, is a diehard Georgia Bulldogs fan. Two days before his 9th birthday, Zac was running into tackling dummies, playing the drums and excited to participate in his second Victory Day.
Nease football coach Tim Krause has worked in education for 15 years. The idea for Victory Day is one Krause borrowed from a coach in Michigan he met along the way.
“We took the idea,” Krause recalled, as he stood at midfield in gold shorts and a whistle in his mouth. “I brought it to our athletic director (Matt McCool). He took it to (St. Johns County Chief of Community Relations) Christina (Langston). They have been so great taking the idea we had for the schools. … It falls in line with the vision of our school, our district and our (football) program.”
Friday was the third Victory Day. Previously, it was held during football season. But weather concerns moved it to the first Friday in December.
Time did not stop Nease senior Jacob Gmeiner from forming a bond with Shonn, a fifth grader at Ward’s Creek Elementary. As the two went to grab lunch — McCool manned the grill to cook hot dogs, sausages and more for nearly 100 people — Shonn rode on Jacob’s back and the two spoke about a myriad of topics.
“A lot of the kids came back. It means a lot because they found excitement,” Gmeiner said. “It means more than playing with them. They feel they have done something and that makes the day.”
Gmeiner moved to Northeast Florida from Flour Mound, Texas prior to his junior year. Nease coaches say he is one of the quieter players on the team, but Victory Day removed any reticence he may have possessed during his varsity football career. Gmeiner said spending time with Shonn and others was a reminder not to take anything for granted.
Gmeiner was far from the only Nease football player who approached Victory Day as an opportunity to enrich someone who may look up to them. Nease quarterback Preston Staples and a fourth grader from Timberlin Creek hit it off to the point that when the student needed a napkin to wipe his hands, he was highly amused that Staples asked offensive guard Angel Rodriguez to “take one for the team and let him wipe his hands on your shirt.”
A morning of activities culminated in each student scoring a touchdown. Players would hand them a football and it was their job to dart between the Panthers players toward paydirt.
Unlike the Panthers, those who scored on Friday afternoon were allowed to celebrate in the end zone.