By: Mary O’Leary

January 16, 2015

How do you keep the interest of 2,500 middle school students?

You bring in former football greats, current coaches and the city’s mayor to a mid-morning rally at the Floyd Little Athletic Center.

The seventh and eighth graders, mainly from New Haven, but also from East Haven and Meriden, cheered them on as each speaker pitched reasons why it was important to do well in school.

The rally is a prelude to the weekend events connected to the Walter Camp Football Foundation’s 2014 All America Team celebration.

Marcus Mariola, a quarterback for the University of Oregon, will be honored as player of the year at the foundation’s 125th celebration on Saturday.

This is the fifth year the rally and the awards dinner has been sponsored by First Niagara Bank. It was represented at Thursday’s event by Paul McCraven, the bank’s senior vice president.

David Fulcher, 50, the Walter Camp alumni president and an All-American in 1985 from Arizona State University, was also there.

A participant in three Pro Bowls and Super Bowl XXIII, Fulcher played for the Cincinnati Bengals for six years, followed by a year with the Los Angeles Raiders.

His theme was the importance of commitment.

Raised in a tough neighborhood in Los Angeles, he said he was determined to get out and education was the key.

When he was drafted by the Bengals, “I was committed to being the best player I could be on the football field.”

“I am a committed human being. I have been married for 20 years to my wife, Judy … I’m committed to that,” which brought sustained clapping from the young teens.

“I am committed to my family. So when you are committed to something that you love, you go all in. When you are committed to your school and your education, you are all in. There is no part-time … on anything … you go all in 100 percent and you don’t let anybody tell you you can’t achieve the things you want to do,” Fulcher said.

Grey Ruegamer, 38, the 1998 All American, also from Arizona State, an offensive lineman for the New England Patriots and the New York Giants, posed after his talk with some students who were awed by his two Super Bowl rings.

“It’s important to give back. I was always the biggest and the fastest, but I had to work really hard at everything I did. I look at my career and I was very fortunate to play on the teams that I did. I had to overcome a lot of different things. If I have influenced one kid, then I have done my job,” Ruegamer said of his participation in Walter Camp.

New Haven Mayor Toni Harp, the first woman in the city to hold that position, told the students “education is the tie breaker. It makes all the difference in the world, in your world even more so than mine.”

“When I was younger, you could actually quit school and make a living for yourself. But today we live in a knowledge-based economy and even to get a job in a factory requires education,” she said. The mayor advised the athletes, that if they don’t do well in college, “you don’t play.”

Harp said when she retires, “people in your generation are going to build our economy, you are going to be our doctors, our lawyers, people who make things happen in our cities. So I am depending on you to educate yourself and make this city, or wherever you are, the best in the world.”

Tricia Fabbri, the head coach of the women’s basketball team at Quinnipiac University, said the young women who play for her have to turn in their cell phones before each practice, so they can concentrate on improving their skills and learn to interact with each other.

She said the “distractions that are holding you back from being your best are your Instagram account, your Face-timing, Twitter … It is taking time away from you doing what is the most important thing on a daily basis – your homework.”

Tony Reno, head football coach at Yale University, told the 13- and 14-year-olds, to think ahead. In five short years they will be out of high school.

In a call and response pitch, he told them they are the only ones who can control their attitudes about learning, working and helping their families.

“You go to class and you learn. Does your teacher control what you learn in class? Yes or no?” Reno asked

“No,” they shouted back. “Who controls it?” he asked.

“I do,” they answered.