FORT MILL — It wasn’t business as usual Tuesday morning for the students and staff at Orchard Park Elementary School.
Instead, the entire Fort Mill school packed into the gym and cafeteria – many clad in black, white and teal gear for a very loud, very energetic pep rally.
The “Champions of Character Challenge” is an effort by the Carolina Panthers to promote good character traits in children.
“They were really great and incorporated what we do into their program,” said guidance counselor Sarah Baird.
Orchard Park has a schoolwide character development program throughout the year.
After getting pumped up with some music and dancing, students talked about character and then the introductions began: “Sir Purr,” the Panthers mascot, Harris Teeter mascot “Harry the Happy Dragon” and two members of the “Top Cats,” the Panthers’ cheerleading team.
Then the stars of the show appeared – Panthers centers Ryan Kalil and Jeff Byers, who both high-fived students as they ran through the crowd.
When he was a kid in school, Byers said, he looked up to professional football players.
“One of the greatest things about the profession that we’re in is having the opportunity to be a role model,” he said.
Byers and Kalil each joined a team of three students to compete in a game show about character. There were questions about character traits and the program at Orchard Park.
One of the questions was about what Kalil considered to be the most important trait of being a Panthers team captain.
The game show, hosted by Riley Fields, the Panthers’ director of community relations, also included physical challenges.
Students and teachers completed a short obstacle course in one challenge. In another, a first-grader competed in a dance competition against a fifth-grade teacher.
Two teachers also raced to see who could put on an entire Panthers game uniform before walking down a makeshift catwalk as if at a fashion show.
Throughout the morning, the audience of 800 students and teachers was engaged, cheering and full of energy.
“This is actually the biggest pep rally I think I’ve ever done,” Byers said.
When she wasn’t racing to get dressed in a full football uniform, second-grade teacher Joanne Schmitz was dancing and laughing along with her students.
“It’s awesome,” she said. “It really builds school spirit and gets them excited about school and about building character.”
Markeisha Barnette was one of the teachers who raced through a short obstacle course. While the pep rally might look like a big party, she said, it’s actually a great educational opportunity.
“They’re learning from all the excitement, especially from the players because they’re positive role models,” Barnette said.
After all the festivities, the Panthers gave Orchard Park a $1,000 check to help pay for its character development program before cannons blasted teal confetti over the screaming, dancing crowd.
The check came as a surprise, Baird said.
“Hopefully, this is an event they’ll remember for the rest of their lives,” she said.
Six-year-old Ava Starosky is in the first grade at Orchard Park and was on the winning game show team. She said the event was good because she was “just having fun.”
Character is “important because you want everyone to feel welcome,” she said.
Ava said she is a Panthers fan. Her favorite player?
Kalil, of course – her teammate from the game show.
Rachel Southmayd • 803-329-4072