Thursday is the best day of the week for kindergarten students at Nokomis Montessori School in St. Paul.
Physical education teacher Don Pollard feels all of the extra energy during lunchroom duty. Kids rush up to him and loudly announce, “Today is Thursday, that means DeAngelo is coming!”
Once the bell rings, students race toward Kristie Zellmer’s classroom and get positioned for “DeAngelo Day.” All of the children know their favorite reading partner, “Chicken Dancer” and friend will be joining them virtually.
Moments later, Gophers defensive tackle DeAngelo Carter’s bright smile stretches across the screen. Laughs, squeals and waves fill the room as Carter greets the kids through Zoom. Each week, Nokomis Montessori students eagerly wait to see which book DeAngelo will read them.
“He started picking his own books and he’d pick funny books. They didn’t always have to be one with a heavy theme,” pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teacher Kristie Zellmer said. “They would just laugh and laugh and laugh. And then, he would laugh. It is something that I will always remember in my years of teaching.”
Despite being separated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the bond between Carter and his friends is unmatched. The students sent DeAngelo cards for Valentine’s Day and even made him an Easter basket. Carter treasures each of the gifts and displays them in his room.
“I have little small things that they send me hung up in my room. Like I have a picture of the kids in the classroom in my room. It’s a good feeling,” Carter said. “It brought me back to my younger days of me writing letters. It is crazy because they drew pictures of me, they drew my hair and stuff like that. They wrote, ‘I love you DeAngelo’, and that really sparked a moment for me.”
Get Your Dancing Shoes Ready
DeAngelo spends most of the visit reading with students but ends the sessions by participating in a movement activity. The kids always look forward to teaching Carter new dance moves after they read. Last year, he learned the “Chicken Dance,” which became a favorite among all of the students.
The Gophers’ 300-pound defensive tackle stood in front of the camera, swayed from side-to-side and imitated bird movements. Carter smiled and giggled as the students clapped in unison with him over Zoom. This specific moment is something that Zellmer, a teacher for 27 years, will never forget.
“We taught him the chicken dance and we would do the ‘Hokey Pokey.’ And that was their favorite part too. Not only him reading the story, but then being silly with him and dancing and seeing this big kid doing ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.’ It is just special,” Zellmer said.
“I guess I didn’t have the steps like DeAngelo”
Once the dancing ends, students have physical education class with Mr. Pollard. He is usually the first person to hear all about DeAngelo’s virtual visit. Pollard said students often dance in his class, but it never meets the standard of Thursday classroom sessions with Carter. No matter how hard Pollard tries, he can’t move like DeAngelo.
“When I was done [doing the Chicken Dance], they said, ‘You didn’t do it as well as DeAngelo did.’” I said, ‘I appreciate that, kids.’” Pollard laughed. “I guess I didn’t have the steps like DeAngelo.”
Carter enjoyed learning new moves from the students, especially the “Chicken Dance.” Every week, he smiled when he saw the students jumping up and down in excitement.
“It is crazy because they made me start dancing and stuff like that. It was so unexpected because I never heard of a chicken dance or anything like that, so doing that with the kids was a very good thing,” Carter said.
Carter arrives in the classroom each week and never knows which new dance move the students will teach him. Zellmer and the kids are even thinking about new options for the upcoming school year. At this point, Carter has not thought about future sack dances, but may consider using the “Chicken Dance” after sacking an opposing quarterback.
“I could probably make the chicken dance into [a sack dance]. I haven’t gave that any thought yet,” Carter said. “I’ll give it some thought because I know they would like to see it on TV or if they come to games.”
An Important Role Model for Kids
Each week, Carter reads stories that feature real-world themes and talks with the kids about his past experiences as an African American man. He picks different books every time, but particularly enjoys one that teaches children how to love one another no matter the color of their skin. Zellmer credits DeAngelo’s open, honest and genuine personality for helping Nokomis Montessori students and staff through a very difficult year.
“During this year, going through all the unrest that we’ve had and the race relationship, it was so important for my students of color to see a young man, a young black man who was being successful and was very honest,” Zellmer said. “I would talk to him about what his life was like and what it was like for him to come to Minnesota coming from an all-black community. He said it was the first time he’d had white teammates. He would talk about how his white teammates were interested and helped him.”
Carter’s past experiences in south Georgia shaped him into the man he is today. The Gophers’ defensive tackle remembers growing up without a prominent mentor in his life. Now, he wants to make sure the next generation of kids have positive role models, no matter the color of their skin.
“[Being a role model for kids] is one of the most important things in my life besides just football because I want kids to not grow up how I grew up – the hard times and stuff like that,” Carter said. “That is one of the main reasons why I do it because I want the kids to have somebody to look up to no matter their skin color. Most of the kids that are in that class are white kids, but I feel like they connect with me on a very special, special level, no matter my skin color.”
“Do I get to read to DeAngelo this week?”
Over time, Zellmer eventually picked individual students to read with DeAngelo. She chose kids who worked hard and learned a new book that week. Those students received special one-on-one time with Carter.
“It was a big incentive because then they knew they had to learn their book so that they could read it to him and then he was just so positive with them, telling them what a great job they did and asking them questions,” Zellmer said. “That would be their special time and they would fight over who would get to do it. The kids would say, ‘Is it my turn this week? Do I get to read to DeAngelo this week?’”
How did this program begin?
The relationship between Minnesota’s football program and the Nokomis Montessori School started with one phone call. Pollard, a former Gophers linebacker from 1985-86, was contacted by a friend about a possible partnership between the Gopher football team and school. After learning about the opportunity, he spoke with several teachers and they immediately jumped on board.
“I feel really blessed that we’ve had the opportunity through Don to partner with the team. People who aren’t sports people, you have a different vision of what athletes are like and DeAngelo is just the opposite of that,” Zellmer said.
Many other Gopher football players, including quarterback Tanner Morgan and wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell have also participated in the reading program. However, when other Minnesota athletes read to students in Zellmer’s classroom, they are always asked one burning question.
“We had Mo Ibrahim read on National African American Parent Involvement Day and the first thing the kids asked him is, ‘Are you on DeAngelo’s team?’” Zellmer said. “[Mo] just laughed. He thought that was a good one.”
Gopher Football is Touching the Lives of Kids
Pollard, a Gopher football alum, is proud of the work that current players are doing in the community, including at his school.
“To see them reaching out and doing all that community service and educating those kids and telling them about their lives and telling them that they can be anything they want, that is just the coolest thing that the University of Minnesota football team can do,” Pollard said.
Carter attended class and earned community service hours for a class he was taking at the University of Minnesota. However, once DeAngelo accumulated all of his time, he kept working with the kids. The Gophers’ defensive tackle was never worried about the hours for his class. His relationship with the students was more important.
“After his hours were up, he continued to meet with the class – not for his class, he just wanted to visit with that kids,” Pollard said. “He made a big impact on those kids with that alone. To see the players coming back and giving to the kids and just giving them some knowledge about what’s right and what they can accomplish, it is a great thing because some kids don’t have a father figure at home.”
Lending a Helping Hand
Every Thursday, the students and staff wear maroon and gold Gophers gear because they know it is “DeAngelo Day.” The kids and parents also watch Minnesota’s games each Saturday and enjoy seeing their favorite player on the big stage.
“You talk about the content of his character. I remember watching the game when someone was knocked down and DeAngelo was always the first one there to lend a helping hand to pick them up,” Zellmer said. “We talked about that as a class, you know, that it showed what type of person he was.”
Carter understands how a positive model can change the lives of kids. It is why he reaches out to young Georgia students and participates in activities with the Nokomis Montessori School. Every day, he is doing what he loves — mentoring, reading and dancing with kids.
“I didn’t have anybody in my life who could I look up to because everybody I looked up to was either doing bad things or going to jail or something like. So I like giving these kids a positive model that they can look at,” Carter said. “There are things that I go through in college, but I still have to be a bigger person for those kids.”
Carter’s Future Goals Involve Kids
Carter, a redshirt sophomore, is already thinking about his future goals at the University of Minnesota. The Gophers’ defensive tackle would like to eventually launch a mentorship program that pairs kids with positive role models.
“I want to start a youth organization to have kids come up and just have fun or even to just talk and have conversations and things like that,” Carter said. “Maybe a nonprofit because it’s something that I love to do.”
In the meantime, Zellmer and Pollard are hoping the school can safely schedule an in-person “DeAngelo Day” to thank Carter.
“I just hope that the kids will have an opportunity to meet him in person,” Zellmer said.
“I want him to know — I’m starting to get teary — how important it was, especially at this time in their lives with everything that was going on. Like I said, the civil unrest and COVID-19, and he was just a very bright spot and a very positive spot in their day. He is so important to them.”
Note: DeAngelo Carter is one of 109 nominees for the 2021 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team by Allstate and the American Football Coaches Association. It is widely considered the top community service award in college football. More details are included here.
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