A junior forward on the Keene State College men's basketball team, Eric Fazio is used to playing in front of a lot of people.
You want a clutch reverse layup before a packed-to-the-rafters Spaulding Gym? No problem.
Or how about a rough rebound in enemy territory? A piece of cake.
But how would he do in front of a classroom of young students at the Marlborough School in Marlborough, New Hampshire?
Although Fazio and the Owls were looking forward to the team's 38th annual visit to the school, they felt pre-game jitters as they entered the classroom to be grilled by 7– to 13-year-olds.
“It was like Santa Claus had come through the door.”
Sitting in Mrs. Rilda Letourneau's wicker chair in the corner of the kindergarten room, Fazio handled the questions like a pro.
How tall are you? What's your favorite color? What's the highest you ever shot a basketball?
"I like hearing all the funny questions the kids have," said Fazio, from Hopewell Junction in New York. You want to be a good role model because all the kids look up to you, so you want to say the right things."
The arrival of the Keene State players is treated like a holiday at the school. "It was like Santa Claus had come through the door," said Letourneau, who has been at the school for almost 20 years. "You have no idea what kind of impact the players have on the students."
Although the venue has changed over the years from the high school to the old middle school to the town's spanking-new K-8 school built two years ago, the message has always been the same: "This is my third year going to Marlborough and before leaving I always tell the students there's no substitute for working hard in the classroom," said Fazio.
It's a prominent point reinforced by other members of the team. "One of the kids asked me what I have to do to go to college and play ball, and I told him to keep his grades up," said Montel Walcott, a sophomore from New Haven, CT. "Without the grades, you won't be able to get into college."
“They're looked upon as superstars and that's a powerful place to be. Your perspective can change when those little eyes are looking up at you.”
The Owls' migration to Marlborough dates back to the '70s, when then Keene State Coach Glenn Theulen began to bring his teams to the high school. The partnership with Keene State also extends to the classroom. Over the years, many KSC students got their first teaching experience at the Marlborough schools.
Skip Mason '74, who has been a gym teacher in the Marlborough school system for 36 years, says it's a win-win for his students and the KSC team. "Many of the players are majoring in education and it's probably one of the first times they will get in front of an audience, not to play but to stand up and talk about their lives, what it's like to be a Keene State player, and reemphasize the importance of doing well in the classroom to the students," he said.
“This is it. They know the Celtics and they know Duke, but Keene State is their Duke and Coach Colbert is Coach K.”
"It's really important for our players to see how they are viewed," said Coach Rob Colbert. "They're looked upon as superstars and that's a powerful place to be. Your perspective can change when those little eyes are looking up at you."
"A lot of these kids go to Coach Colbert's basketball camp and attend Keene State games, and their eyes light up when they come in," said Mason. "This is it. They know the Celtics and they know Duke, but Keene State is their Duke and Coach Colbert is Coach K."
After meeting with the players in their classroom, the students filed into the gym for a brief basketball clinic that included demonstrations, dribbling drills, and a free-throw competition. Coach Colbert then summoned teachers to the court for a hula-hoop contest. With a pizza party on the line, the teachers did their best Elvis Presley hip moves, gyrating the maddening hoops to the delight of their students in the stands.
Several students, including members of the school's basketball team, the Marlborough Dukes, joined the Owls on the floor for the big finale – an exciting relay race. The highlight of the race went to Walcott, who somehow slipped his six-foot, eight-inch, 235-pound frame between the legs of a startled seventh grader to win the race.
Captivated by the physical presence of the players, the students left the gym all smiles, hearing words of encouragement meant to bring out strong performances in the classroom. "It was really fun," said Erika Farhmy, a sixth grader. "I want to play in college, so I know I'm going to have to work hard in school and practice."
"It takes a lot of practice and a lot of hard work to be like them," echoed seventh grader Allyson Patnode, gazing up at the giants in front of her. "You can't give up."
Lessons in commitment and sacrifice came through. "You have to get up at five in the morning [referring to the Owls' preseason bonding ritual]," said Emersyn Blanchard, a 13-year-old. "I'd do it, but I wouldn't like it."