By Jocelyn Vinoya Serranilla
Reggie Hearn must have anticipated the crowd's reaction to his bold declaration on his eating habits growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Hearn, who has been fearless in adversity on the basketball court, finishing last season as the leading scorer on the Wildcats' men's basketball team, brought the same bold and fearless demeanor at River Trails Middle School when he challenged his audience to eat right, get enough sleep and stay active.
"I'm like a lot of you, guys. My mom always taught me to eat Brussels sprouts and all those green vegetables," Hearn declared. The crowd erupted, "Awwww! Brussels sprouts!"
Unabashed by the uproar, Hearn continued to press his case for a healthy lifestyle to the sixth, seventh and eighth graders who have packed the school gym in suburban Mt. Prospect on Friday, April 12. "Yeah! I was like, "Uh! Brussels sprouts!" He said he reacted the same way when his mom used to feed him veggies but admitted "those green vegetables really helped me. I've been eating right and that helped me become the player that I am today."
His transformation from a walk-on his freshman year to starter and scholarship player his junior year, Hearn acknowledged his success as a collective effort. "There are a lot of people who remind me to eat right. We have a nutritionist at Northwestern who is helping me out, reminding me to eat my vegetables, to eat breakfast. Sometimes I just want to eat ice cream, but that's not good for me as an athlete." Hearn also reminded the kids to get enough sleep as part of their health regimen. "That's going to help you stay healthy in the long run."
Hearn's visit kicked off a morning assembly at the suburban middle school where students and teachers danced, hula-hooped, jumped rope, played volleyball and basketball, ate fresh green salads and participated in games geared towards creating awareness to a healthy lifestyle. It was a day dedicated to Fuel Up to Play 60, a nationwide program sponsored by the National Dairy Council and the National Football League to help prevent childhood obesity, encouraging participants to make healthy food choices, to stay active and exercise for at least 60 minutes a day.
Hearn's bubbly personality won over his audience and by the time he announced, "I think I'm sticking around for a while, so let's fuel up to play 60," most kids, both boys and girls have milled around him, jumping to high-five the Wildcats' recipient of the Big Ten's Sportsmanship Award for 2012-13, and asking him questions mostly about how tall he was and who his favorite NBA player was. Hearn's 6-foot-4-inch, 210-pound frame was all the middle school students needed as proof that eating vegetables must really work.
From the general assembly, the students broke up in smaller stations in various classrooms, which Hearn each visited. He gave them a glimpse of how much he enjoyed his fruits and vegetables at the school cafeteria where he munched on chopped broccoli, spinach, lettuce, apples, tomatoes and onions as students stood in line with pens and papers asking for his autograph. The nutritionist sensed his magical effect on the kids. "Ask them to eat butternut squash," she whispered while handing him a cup of chopped salad. Hearn obliged to the nutritionist's request, at which point he turned to his captive audience, "eat butternut squash and I'll give you my autograph." All the kids were undeterred by the trade-off challenge of butternut-squash-for-Reggie Hearn-autograph. No one left the line.
All morning at RTMS, Hearn not only declared, "I'm excited to be here," but showed it in everything he did with the kids. He sashayed on the dance floor, arms up in the air as he made his way into the music room where students and teachers danced to the beat of Katy Perry's "California Gurls." There were giggles all around, energizing the room even more.
Hearn was the second Northwestern Wildcat student-athlete to grace Fuel Up to Play 60 at River Trails. Former basketball standout John Shurna helped kick-off the school's inaugural program last year. School principal Keir Rogers quipped during his introduction of Hearn, "I like basketball, obviously!"
Rogers lauded Hearn's accomplishments as a walk-on. "I don't know him personally but he must have resolute toughness because he eventually earned a scholarship. Most student-athletes are recruited and offered scholarships but this student-athlete walked on, meaning he tried out for the team, which is not easy to do in the Big Ten."
Rogers, himself a former basketball player, urged the students to talk to Hearn. "Go ahead, ask him questions, ask him about being a student-athlete because it's very important that you look up to people like Reggie and say, 'You know what, I aspire to do something great like what he's doing right now.' He's in school, he's doing something beyond basketball."
Hearn's sprouts have truly blossomed on and off the basketball court.