By Mary O’Leary

NEW HAVEN – The kids really seemed to be listening.

Football greats Lincoln Kennedy Jr. of the Oakland Raiders and the Atlanta Falcons and Timothy Worley of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Chicago Bears told more than 2,000 area middle school students Thursday that their football careers were exciting, but education was what guarantees a productive life after professional sports.

“You are nothing without an education … You guys right now are at a crossroads. You are setting the tone for your life right now,” Worley said as he addressed students at the packed Floyd Little Athletic Center in the first event of the Walter Camp weekend. “Don’t be known as the class clown.”

The Walter Camp Football Foundation events through Saturday honor college athletes, who get to interact with local students.

Worley told them the ups and downs he personally experienced from a setback early on at the University of Georgia, when he lost his scholarship after letting his grades slip during recovery from an injury. He responded by catching up at a junior college and was back on the team.

After his career with the Bears was over in 1996, he eventually overcame a fear of public speaking and is now a motivational speaker.

He didn’t go into details, but Worley, an All-American in 1988, alluded to the really bad times as well.

He warned students, “whatever you want out there on the negative side, it is out there and it is waiting on you. It is all about choice — choices and consequences. It’s all about you and what you want to do.”

Worley had problems with drugs and alcohol and credits his life turning around in 2008 when he entered rehab after 23 days in jail following an arrest for speeding and assaulting an officer.

Worley and Kennedy have come to New Haven before for the Walter Camp school rally and hospital visits to children that are part of the weekend celebration.

Kennedy, who is now part of the Oakland Raiders radio broadcast team and was a Walter Camp All-American in 1992, said today’s students face a tougher time than when he was growing up. In 2013, he joined the Oakland Raiders radio broadcast team.

He said some young people “don’t respect life anymore. They are killing people over shoes, over jewelry, over nonsense.”

Kennedy said those intent on a future in sports should realize “one day it will end. You will no longer be able to run as fast, jump as high, shoot that ball like you used to. Develop a plan now. … you need an education. You have to have a college degree.”

“Whatever you want to do … do it for the right reasons … It’s not about the bling,” Kennedy said.

He had financial advice too for the young crowd: “You have to learn to manage your money.” At 21, he said he blew his earnings.

“Remember, if it’s meant to be, it’s up to me,” Kennedy said of the need for self-reliance.

Mayor Toni Harp, the city’s first female mayor, promoted the same theme.

“You can grow up poor like I did, but if you become educated, you will be able to take care of yourself and your family. So, stay in school and work hard … sometimes it is not easy, it wasn’t easy for me. But I kept trying,” said Harp, who promised the 12- to 14-year-olds they too can be the leaders of their towns.

In addition to the middle school students from Stratford, Meriden, East Haven, West Haven and New Haven, the football and cheerleading teams from Hillhouse High School, Wilbur Cross High School and Hyde School of Sciences and Sports Medicine were at the rally.

The event has been sponsored the last four years by First Niagara Bank.

Came’a White, 14, said the rally was fun and helpful.

“It helps me stay in school and, more importantly, it tells me I can’t enter the world without an education,” said the eighth-grader. Like a number of students in the audience, she was intent on a career in sports.

“I want to go to the WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association),” Came’a said.

Kellianne Deko, 12, of Joseph Melillo School in East Haven, said she thought the rally speaks to kids.

Kellianne said she plans to go to college “and do the best I can. I want to get into sports, softball, basketball.” If she doesn’t play professionally, she said she would be happy with teaching or coaching. “It doesn’t really matter, as long as I get to be involved in a sport.”

James Monico, president of the foundation, who has been with the organization for 17 years, said the point is to hopefully influence as many students as they can on the education message.  “If we reach one kid, we have done our job, but I think we reach a lot more than that,” Monico said.

Twenty-one All American athletes will be honored Saturday at the Yale Commons dinner.

Athletes today and on Friday will visit a number of hospitals and rehab centers including: Easter Seals Goodwill Industries Rehabilitation Center in New Haven; Feroletto Development Center in Bridgeport; Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford; Veteran’s Administration medical center in West Haven; Yale-New Haven Hospital and the Connecticut Center for Child Development in Milford.