ATHENS, Ga. -- Last weekend roughly 30 Georgia football players headed over to The Classic Center after Outback Bowl practice to celebrate the holidays with hundreds of kids from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Athens. Dressed in their game jerseys, the young men walked amongst the children like red and white giants, signing autographs, posing for pictures and giving countless hugs. It was all part of the Holiday Festival, an event designed to help the less fortunate in the Athens area.
Dave Van Halanger is the Bulldogs' new director of player welfare. He had spent the previous 10 years as Georgia's director of strength and conditioning. This year he went from molding players' physiques to molding his charges into contributing citizens of a community. Not that the latter was too hard.
"I genuinely thought the players wanted to give back at Christmas," Van Halanger said. "So I told them the Boys and Girls Clubs are having a function over at The Classic Center, and I asked how many guys wanted to come. We had about 30 guys raise their hands."
After practice last Saturday, the players cleaned up and headed downtown, where the kids had gathered to eat, play in bounce houses, listen to a gospel band and collect their individual bags of goodies before meeting the Bulldogs. Later in the afternoon, the children would treat their parents to a fashion show. Everything used for the event, from the food to the toys to the formal wear, was donated by local businesses.
"I think giving back is something Coach [Mark] Richt has taught the kids, because we are so blessed and our kids really seem to want to do that," Van Halanger said. "We have guys that are always doing it, like Aaron Murray, Ben Jones and Aron White. Your leaders do it. And it is not something they have to do -- it is something they want to do. And they get involved with the kids and the players have a ball.
"It is part of the Georgia Way. There is a big responsibility being a Georgia Bulldog, because you are under such a microscope. You sometimes only hear the bad things, but our guys do some great things and this is just one of them. I don't think our guys ever do it for the media, but rather they want to do it for the young kids that are here. If they can put a little joy in their life for today, then our guys will be happy."
The players were received as instant heroes as they walked into the throng of children. More than one toddler appeared anxious at the thought of talking to the players, but the older children scrambled all over the likes of Blair Walsh, Kenarious Gates and Chris Conley.
"It is a great opportunity to give back to the community, to be thankful for what we have," Conley said. "It's an opportunity to just be in the Christmas spirit of giving. It is great to be able to go and do that in public. I love kids. I consider myself to be a people person, so I love being around kids."
Conley is quite familiar with outreach programs like the Holiday Festival. He and his family have a tradition of giving back to their community.
"My family has a thing where, on Christmas, we will go to a shelter and serve breakfast or something," Conley said. "That is what we are doing this year."
Gates was all smiles as he posed with the children and adults alike. The sophomore guard is known for being a big kid himself.
"I came here to see the kids," Gates said. "I am a playful guy, I like to have fun. I might wrestle some with the kids to see how tough they are."
Walsh was impressed by the reception he and his teammates received.
"Coach Van asked us to come out and see these kids and try to brighten their day up a little bit," Walsh said. "It is very humbling to see all these people that are excited to see all the players. It is just a nice feeling to be wanted, to know that you are looked up to by people."
The Holiday Festival is run under the direction of Minister Betty Boyd of Deliverance Temple Ministries of Winterville, Ga. She started it four years ago when she was asked to put on an event for the children of the community.
"The first one we put on was for Friends for Life, a program for kids whose parents are incarcerated," Boyd said. "They asked me to do a Christmas event. Every year it grew. Last year we did it for the Boys and Girls Clubs. We have done it for DFACS kids and the Sherriff's Department's kids. Last year we registered 423 kids at the door and we were standing room only. This year the wonderful people at The Classic Center donated this big space to us and we have close to 600 kids here today."
The generosity of The Classic Center was also matched by local businesses that wanted to help out with the event.
"What I really like about this year is that everything was donated," Boyd said. "Papa John's and Stevie B's helped, Lowe's donated all the decorations that you see here. Perno's Formal Wear donated the tuxedos for the boys and I Do I Do Bridal donated all the dresses for the girls for the fashion show. Wal-Mart made monetary donations and different churches donated. Everybody helped."
The Georgia football players donated the one thing they have in short supply -- their free time.
"I had no idea they were going to send this many," Boyd said. "I wanted the guys to come and be an inspiration, but not just as football players. A lot of these kids stay in areas of poverty that are drug-infested. They see a lot of stuff that a normal kid doesn't get to see. So these guys are bringing a lot of inspiration with their smiles and their hugs. I want to do it again next year."
If she does, the Georgia players will be back.
Radi Nabulsi covers University of Georgia athletics for DawgNation. He can be reached at RadiNabulsiESPN@gmail.com.