The New Orleans Saints recently held a special event as part of the National Football League’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15 through Oct. 15. They hosted an NFL PLAY 60 Character camp at Esperanza Charter School in New Orleans.
Several dozen Esperanza Elementary School students sat on the floor in the school cafeteria, their hands raised as they waited to answer a question about the New Orleans Saints.
What’s the name of the Saints’ starting tight end?
Drew Brees, said one student. No, sorry.
Sean Payton, answered another. Wrong again.
(Sorry, Jimmy Graham.)
Later, the pint-sized pupils moved to the school playground where the boys and girls tackled practice dummies three times their size and girth, caught passes, ran around cones, threw footballs into a stationary target and participated in a flag football version of the famous Oklahoma football drill that places one ball carrier against one defender.
For these kids — many of them of Hispanic origin — the junior training camp, sponsored by the Saints, marked their biggest exposure to football, perhaps the first for many of their households.
Soccer balls dominate the homes of these sports fanatics, not the oval version of the game balls.
That’s why Adriel Rocha, community affairs associate for the Saints, said this event is important.
“We wanted to not only expose these kids to the game of football, but do it in an environment that they wouldn’t feel timid to learn, among each other,” said Rocha, who grew up in a Hispanic household in nearby Gulfport, Mississippi. “A lot of children choose not to participate in football due to the language barrier and the unfamiliarity of the sport.”
Later in the morning, a second-grader at the school tackles a dummy, earning praise from his physical education teacher.
“Wrap him up, wrap him up … There you go!”
Many of the children at the school are first-generation U.S. residents, which marks a transition in their family’s heritage. Sixty-five percent of the students hail from Latin American countries — Honduras, Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Rocha wants their families to follow the Saints exploits of Brees, Payton and Graham with the same enthusiasm as they do with Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, a striker for Real Madrid and the Mexican National team.
Since 2000, the Hispanic population in Greater New Orleans has nearly doubled, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 population estimates, with the greatest concentration in Jefferson Parish. Now, Rocha wants to introduce the city’s favorite sports pastime to a new audience.
Even in New Orleans, where figuratively fans bleed black and gold, there are segments of the population that the Saints have not reached.
Nicole Saulny, principal at Esperanza, realized how underexposed her students were to American football after a non-sports event at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“My kids had never been in the Superdome, and were super excited,” Saulny said. “I had so many parents come and tell me ‘thank you.’
“I think it’s a cultural thing where they focus on soccer. If they’re not exposed, they’re not going to know. So this is great exposure for them.”