North Chicago freshman and varsity football player Dyzhir Usher was in awe looking at Darnell Wright, the Chicago Bears’ top draft pick this year, but soon they were smiling and talking to each other like old friends.
‘We talked about football and he told me you ‘have to keep up your grades,’” Usher, who hopes to play college football, said. “He pushed me hard to keep up with my grades.”
Usher was one of 27 Warhawks and Wright among 24 Bears packaging tangerines, potatoes and butternut squash May 25 at the Northern Illinois Food Bank’s Lake Forest location, joining forces to battle food insecurity.
For approximately an hour, the football players combined for a volunteer shift at the food bank packing food and getting it ready for shipment. Matt Simoene, the Bears’ director of community and alumni relations, said philanthropy is part of the team culture.
“Giving back like this is important,” Simoene said. “It’s very important to the McCaskeys,” he added referring to the family that owns the team.
Simoene said it was important to have the team’s 24 first-year players work together to help the community and provide some mentoring to the North Chicago athletes. Their campus is just over two miles from Halas Hall, the Bear’s Lake Forest training facility.
North Chicago head football coach Wilton Hill, Jr. said getting the opportunity to work side by side with athletes who have reached the peak of their profession can offer inspiration like nothing else.
“They realize they’re normal people who play the same sport they do,” Hill said. “Talking (to the Bears) gives them tremendous motivation to help them see what they can achieve.”
At first, Usher and teammate Diego Ventura were working side by side packaging tangerines, looking at Wright and Bear Thyrick Pitts around the corner at the same table but not ready to mingle. They were thinking about the professionals’ prowess.
“I’d tell the coach it’s not for me,” Ventura said, when asked what he would do if he had to block Wright. “It would be a crazy experience.”
“I wouldn’t back away from the challenge,” Usher said of blocking Wright. “I’d give it all I’ve got.”
Within a few minutes, Usher was standing between Wright and Pitts talking comfortably as the exchanged smiles. Wilton said he was glad players like Usher received academic encouragement from NFL players.
“It was good to see they would talk about that,” Wilton said. “It’s important they know (grades) are important to them.”
Micaeh Johnson, the Bears director of corporate communications, said in an email the players would not be available for interviews.
Adding meaning to the day for the North Chicago athletes was the fact they were potentially helping other students at their school or elsewhere in North Chicago School District 187. The district educates preschoolers through high school seniors.
All District 187 students receive free breakfast and lunch every day because of the large number of youngsters who qualify for it. Chris Gillette, the director of operations for the food bank, said it is possible some of the tangerines could be part of student meals there.
North Chicago athletes like Xavier Pitts said while it is important to give back to the community, the fact it could be helping students at his school or elsewhere in the district is particularly gratifying.
“It feels good knowing you’re helping your own community,” Pitts said
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