First prize: visit from a Buc

Even if he was running late, Tampa Bay star Derrick Brooks delights a contest winner and her elementary school classmates.

By MICHELE MILLER, Times Staff Writer
Published November 14, 2007

NEW PORT RICHEY - It was the NFL's "Take a Player to School" day at Mittye P. Locke Elementary and the man of the hour was, well, a little tardy.

Not to worry.

While Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks was running late after saying he was stopped by the Florida Highway Patrol for driving too fast, 7-year-old Anabelle Mahon was stretching time and sopping up her own 20 minutes of fame.

Anabelle, dressed in blue jeans, a pink-and-white Buccaneers T-shirt and pink Hello Kitty Crocs sandals, alighted from the shiny, black stretch limo with her mom and dad in tow at the allotted time - 10:15 a.m. She then proceeded to entertain the giddy crowd and the press.

"She's been waiting for this for seven years," said her mom, Cailin Mahon, 27, as she watched her daughter mug for TV news cameras, do her version of the "Chuckie Face" and perform the "I can't believe I won! I can't believe I won!" song and dance that she had made up special for the occasion.

Awhile later, after arriving in his own ride, Brooks would get a chance to see that little routine and promised to remember to use his own version of it - "I can't believe I scored! I can't believe I scored" - if he scored a touchdown in Sunday's game.

Anabelle, who cites Mike Alstott and Brooks as her favorite players, was one of 34 kids to win a school visit from home team NFL players, after her mom entered her name in an online sweepstakes.

"I've been entering her ever since she started school," said Cailin Mahon, 27. "You never expect to win the grand prize when you enter something on the Internet."

The "Take a Player to School" program, sponsored by J.C. Penney and the National Football League, was developed to encourage students to stay in school and participate in after-school programs. This year, there is an added push for students to get at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day.

It's a long-standing tradition for Brooks to take part in the program, said Lauren Van Lierop, media coordinator for the Buccaneers. In the past few years, Brooks has paid similar visits to Knights Elementary in Plant City, Mary Bryant Elementary in Tampa and Maniscalco Elementary in Lutz.

Anabelle is really a casual football game viewer, said her dad, Sean Lawson, whose own allegiance is split between the Bucs and his old home team, the Detroit Lions. Still, because her dad is an avid fan who takes Anabelle to every public signing event he can, she's no stranger to meeting football players in person.

"I've met like 11," she said, with a shrug. "Terry Bradshaw, Fridge (William "The Refrigerator" Perry), Jim Brown and a whole bunch of Bucs."

After first meeting Anabelle, Brooks asked, "You ready to go to school?"

"Sure," she said, then asked him where his backpack was.

He retrieved his backpack, which doubles as a briefcase, from his sports utility vehicle and headed to principal Tammy Berryhill's office with Anabelle to sign autographs and sports paraphernalia.

Brooks then spoke to about 500 very excited students - many wearing his number 55 jerseys - gathered in the school cafeteria. He also posed for photographs with students and teachers. Two planned activities - a classroom visit and a physical fitness activity with Anabelle's classmates that was to be led by Brooks had to be scrapped, said Berryhill, "Because we ran out of time."

Still she hoped that Brooks' words would resonate with students.

In his talk, Brooks reminded students that after school they were to do their homework, but after that they should head outdoors to play.

"I know PlayStation and Xbox sounds exciting," he said. "But go exercise ... It's such an important part of (developing) your young minds and young bodies."

The self-proclaimed former class clown also shared a story about how he learned a very valuable lesson about the importance of showing respect for others after his father gave him a very public spanking for acting up in his fifth-grade class.

"How you come to school and how you act is a direct reflection on your family," he said before asking students to recite these words with him:

"I will respect my family."

"I will respect my classmates."

"And finally, I will respect my teachers."