Gatlin Kramer usually starts his letters with a simple hello. Then he includes his name and jersey number. He tells the elementary school children to be active in school, to get good grades and respect their teachers. Sometimes, he tells the students he hopes to see them at a Winchester football game. And if they do go, to keep an eye out for No. 30.
Kramer, a senior running back/defensive back for the Golden Falcons, is part of a teamwide initiative second-year coach Mike Jones has instituted this season. Each week, Winchester football players write to students at Baker Elementary School.
The Golden Falcons recently finished their round of letters for this year following the conclusion of their regular season. Winchester will host Heritage Christian this Friday in the first round of sectionals.
Jones is eager to bring the letter-writing program back next year, adding Willard Elementary School to the mix.
The players send letters to a class, hoping to introduce themselves and impart a positive message to the children. The elementary classes then have an opportunity to write back with follow-up questions, to continue the dialogue with a new friend.
Jones wanted his players to have a sense of the role they play in the Winchester community, and he thought the letter program would be a good step. Each week, 13 players are picked, and they each write to one of Baker’s 13 classes.
The coach says that introducing themselves and asking the students to come out to football games is necessary. But if players like Kramer can persuade the children to listen to their teachers and parents and take school seriously, that’s more important.
“It’s just been ridiculously positive,” Jones said. “Better than I had hoped it would go, quite honestly…
“But the best thing that it’s done, from my perspective, for my guys, is that No. 1 it helps them with their writing skills, which is important. It’s not on a computer, it’s with a piece of paper and a pencil. And so they have to learn some of those fundamental things that we all learned when we went to school.”
Like Kramer, lineman Jacob Sofronko has enjoyed being part of the program. His letters are similar to Kramer’s, including his name and number, while also including a helpful hint on how they might find him if he they attend a game. He tells them he is usually one of the biggest players on the field.
Sofronko said he’s gotten plenty of follow-up questions from students. One student told him about a shared experience playing football. Another told him about her pets, so Sofronko sent a follow-up letter telling her about his animals.
Sofroko said the program holds the players accountable, giving them a clear sense that the students with whom they write look up to them. When he sees those students around town, he knows he’s a role model.
For Sofronko, one of the highlights of the program came after a game. A student from one of the classes to whom he’d written approached him to ask for an autograph.
“It was pretty cool,” Sofronko said. “It made me feel like I was on top of the world.”