LUMBERTON — Two students from Deep Branch Elementary whispered back and forth in line behind several others Monday, nervously awaiting their meeting with Vonta Leach.
It was their first encounter with Robeson County’s native son, a Super Bowl champion and All-Pro fullback with the Baltimore Ravens.
One of them asked, “Do you think he’ll sign my football?”
“I don’t think he has a pen,” his brother countered.
Leach hugged both students, scribbled his name on the pigskin and handed each a $100 gift card, one of several he donated during his eighth annual “Shop with a Jock” charity Christmas event inside Walmart in Lumberton.
“It’s not just the money, it’s Vonta being an inspiration,” said Johnny Hunt, superintendent of the Public Schools of Robeson County. “He inspires our students to excel not only in sports but in academics as well. He’s a tremendous role model who gives back to the kids and the school system. In these economic times, it means a lot to have somebody who’s concerned with the lives of our young people and giving them hope they desperately need.”
The Vonta Leach Foundation has swelled in size since emerging in 2009 as one of the firsts of its kind in Robeson County athletics. The Rowland native and former South Robeson star says coming back to the area every December is one of the highlights of his NFL season.
“The first time we did this there was 25 kids and now it’s grown to over 100 something,” Leach said. “It’s warming to see the smiles on the kids’ faces and the parents being so appreciative. I love being a part of this and having the opportunity to do something charitable for my community.”
Leach and the Baltimore Ravens (6-6) host the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday in need of a win to maintain the AFC’s final wild-card playoff spot.
On Thanksgiving night, Baltimore’s defense came up with a late two-point conversion stop to down Pittsburgh, 22-20.
“We just need to build on our momentum from last Thursday,” Leach said. “We’ve got to learn how to finish games. Our remaining schedule is strong, but in December we always do pretty good. There’s a lot of exciting football left.”
During the holiday victory, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was involved with a near kick return-interference with Ravens speedster Jacoby Jones. The NFL is considering a six-figure fine for the stunt and could take away a future Pittsburgh draft pick.
It appeared Tomlin watched Jones coming his way on Baltimore’s video board and hopped out of the returner’s way at the last second. His intent was unknown, but Tomlin claimed he was not trying to impact the special teams play.
Leach said he’d never seen anything like it.
“I laughed at it,” he said. “He knew what he was doing. He kind of broke our momentum, but I’m glad it didn’t change the outcome of the game.”
Reach staff writer Brad Crawford at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.