WATCH: The 'Cats at Central Elementary
| National Student-Athlete Day Roundup
April 6, 2011
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
This is some days ago and Mark Lenzini, a fourth-and-fifth grade teacher at Central School in Des Plaines, is informing his class that a 'Cat football player will soon be visiting. "You could see that one of my boys was hoping I was going to say Dan Persa. He's his favorite college football player," he will recall, thinking of the reaction of 10-year old Shay Hardy.
And when he heard that it would indeed be Persa who was visiting?
"He almost fainted he was so excited."
This is mid-morning on Wednesday, which has been designated National Student-Athlete Day, and now Persa and the lacrosse player Maria Tedeschi are heading toward the front door of Central School. This is how they will commemorate this day, by advising children, and here Persa is saying, "I always like to talk to kids for the simple fact that I would have liked to have been talked to. I think it would have helped me out a little bit. They could have laid out the things I didn't know. When you're growing up, you're kind of afraid of what you're not sure of, and maybe they could have given me information on stuff that would have been really helpful."
What message will he try to deliver?
"Just to enjoy it and keep themselves as busy as possible and be involved in as many things as possible to find out what they like and don't like. I think that's the best way to do it."
"You should work hard and take advantage of the opportunities you are given," Tedeschi says when asked the same question. "Especially, everyday in athletics, to try your best, and to do your school work. Do your work during the day, then you can go to practice in the afternoon and go home and have dinner and relax and not worry about three different subjects of homework."
They sign in and slap visitors' passes onto their chests and now they are walking into a tiny gym, where the walls are decorated with homemade signs welcoming the pair and declaring them "Champions At Northwestern." On its floor, spread out from baseline to baseline and sideline to sideline, sit 26 second graders, who are initially quiet and just a bit curious. But then, when they spot the cameraman for this website trail the 'Cats in, they are transformed and suddenly agog and excitedly chattering among themselves.
"Are we going to be on television?"
There are no answers given here and so they are spared the truth and any disappointment it might bring. They are also told, since normally they would now be taking gym class, that they can remain and watch all that is to come.
Now Lenzini's student, some 40 strong, are wending their way into the gym and here, as they get themselves seated and settled (no small feat), a small smile starts to dance across Dan Persa's face. It remains there for long seconds, this soft, almost beatific smile, and so finally he is asked if he is having some flashbacks.
"Yeah," he says.
Of what, we wonder.
"I don't know. A bunch of memories," he says, smiling still.
It is now five minutes later and all are finally settled and here come the introductions for Persa and Tedeschi, who are greeted with woops and applause. They make their way to a pair of chairs and deliver those messages they had earlier laid out and now it is time for a question-answer session. A thicket of arms immediately goes up.
"If you play soccer, can you get to the World Cup?" a boy asks.
"You're the only one who puts limits on yourself," answers Persa. "If you dream of the World Cup, go to bed every night dreaming of that and wake up every morning striving to do that."
"What's the toughest team you play?"
"What's your favorite color?"
"How many titles have you won?"
"How many players on your team?"
"Do you enjoy what you do?"
"Do you ever get hurt?"
Those are some of the questions that follow for both Persa and Tedeschi, and now it is Lenzini, the teacher, who has one of his own. He asks about the trip the latter made after her freshman season with the 'Cats.
"After we won the national championship that year, we actually went to the White House," Tedeschi says, and here the students' reactions are filled with awe.
Then later, just before this Q&A is to end, the teacher in Lenzini manifests itself again and he asks Persa about returning from an injury.
"One thing I've focused on is not to be worried about it, not to complain, not to say poor me," he tells the students. "Once I started my rehabilitation, I concentrated on how much I improved that day, even if it was just running 10 yards further than the day before. . . You can't control what happens in your life. But you can control your attitude and how you go forward after bad things happen."
Now hats are passed out, and posters of both the football team and the lacrosse team, and then a line of students is there snaking around the gym, waiting for the autographs of Persa and Tedeschi. For a good 15 minutes they sign in silver ink and then here is Shay Hardy, Persa's big fan, and he is introduced to the quarterback, who has heard the story and gives the boy special care.
"Northwestern's my favorite team for football," the boy will later say.
And why is he such a big fan of Persa?
"I just like the way he plays."
It is now 55 minutes after they had arrived and Persa and Tedeschi are exiting Central School and heading back to campus. She has a film session at 11:30 and then a class and then another film session and then practice. He has a round of rehabilitation to endure and then, at 2 o'clock, a class of his own.
They, both, are student-athletes.
Check out the full Skip Myslenski NUsports.com Archive!
Be the first to know what's going on with the 'Cats -- Follow @NU_Sports on Twitter, become a fan of Northwestern Athletics on Facebook! and subscribe to the NU Sports Express e-newsletter to receive the latest news, schedule updates and video and to interact with NU. For more information on following specific Northwestern teams online, visit our Social Media page!