They had their wish lists in hand with a map of their path to the toy aisle.
The guy in the big red suit, a little wet from the rain, came in the form of a local favorite pro football player from the Baltimore Ravens. For former South Robeson star Vonta Leach, this time of year is especially rewarding.
“Seeing a child smile, that’s what makes my Christmas,” Leach said. “Football’s just a game. This kind of event is what’s really important to me and the Vonta Leach Foundation.”
Scott, 10, gave the Pro Bowl fullback a big hug in the store’s garden center even though he admitted to being a Robert Griffin III fan. McNeill, 9, watches the Ravens play on Sundays when he’s not outside and blurted his heartfelt gift card intentions to everyone within earshot who was in line to meet Leach.
“I’m buying my sister some Hello Kitty headphones,” he said. “I think she’ll really like those.”
For the seventh consecutive year, Leach boarded a plane after Sunday’s game and met with several elementary and middle school students and their families to take part in ‘Shop with a Jock’ for Christmas. Leach’s own gift came a little early this holiday season shortly after Baltimore’s home loss to Denver.
Despite three straight defeats, the Ravens clinched a playoff berth after Dallas beat Pittsburgh in overtime. Leach read the news on his flight home to North Carolina.
“It was pretty cool I guess, but my mind wasn’t even on football,” he said. “I’m very blessed to be where I am and play the sport I love for a living, but giving back is the ultimate reward."
As long as he’s still beating up opposing linebackers in the NFL, Leach plans on continuing what has now become a December tradition for young, needy fans in Robeson County. Leach returns home — often with several teammates — for a variety of self-sponsored events including annual football camps at Lumberton and South Robeson High School as well as Pros vs. Joes basketball games.
“I’m from Rowland and I know some of the challenges these kids must overcome to be successful,” he said. “I love coming home and helping out any way I can.”