CHARLOTTE — Marlboro County High School senior Elijah Blair planned to never take for granted that he not only attended a Carolina Panthers game but got to meet Defensive end Julius Peppers.
"Not many people get to do great things like this. It is indescribable," he said. "I am at a loss for words."
Nine students from AMI Kids Infinity Marlboro and four from the Marlboro County School District along with staff and others attended the Dec. 23 Panthers' game against the Atlanta Falcons.
They were the guests of Peppers, who had visited the county in October after Hurricane Florence. While here, he helped with the muck and gutting of homes, served food and met with flood victims.
While he was here, MCSD Superintendent Dr. Gregory McCord asked Peppers to the speak to the students at Infinity Marlboro. Due to time constraints, Peppers was unable to do it but wanted to have an opportunity to speak with the students so he provided tickets and VIP access for the game.
Blair, a Panthers fan, said he had never attended a game.
"They have been my team even before Cam (Newton) started," he said. "Julius Peppers has been one of my role models for a long time. It was a dream come true to actually meet him."
This season, Peppers was named the Carolina Panthers nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award. The award recognizes a player for their community service activities as well as excellence on the field.
The winner will be announced during NFL Honors, which will air Feb. 2.
In his 10th season with the Panthers, he has played in 172 consecutive games, which is the second-longest active streak in the NFL among position players.
Recently, he was named the Panthers Ed Block Courage Award winner. This is given to a player each season who demonstrates courage on and off the field.
Kimberly Dease, executive director of AMI Kids Infinity Marlboro, said it was a wonderful experience for her kids, who were very excited to meet Peppers.
"Julius Peppers gave a very nice warm welcome," she said. "He had a very joyful spirit seeing the kids when he first came out to greet them."
She added Peppers expressed his appreciation to her for bringing the kids to the stadium.
Dease also thanked McCord for making this connection for the students.
"I hope the students come away appreciative and grateful that someone gave them the opportunity to do something that most kids would never experience," she said.
Janice Bright, a member of the Marlboro County Board of Education, said she was so proud that McCord arranged this and Peppers was generous enough to give them access inside but to also provide them with food.
"It's about the opportunity that Peppers afforded the kids," she said. "These children will always remember the opportunity to come to this Panthers game. They will remember someone cared enough about them to give them free tickets. They will remember Ms. Kim cared enough to bring them."
McCord, superintendent for the Marlboro County School District, believed each experience allows kids to have a different perspective on the types of opportunites available for them in the world.
"And more than anything else is to be able to grant them exposure to something different that is not only going to be memorable but hopefully, it can be a catalyst to help them in their efforts to reach their full potential," he said.
And while the culminating experience was to attend the game, he said, there will be so much more they will remember for the rest of their lives.
To McCord, the experience is more about what they took away from it such as being outside of Marlboro County, being inside a sports arena and getting a chance to talk to someone on a professional level.
"There will be things they will remember for the rest of their lives," he said. "It was Peppers' last game at that arena. That is something they will be able to cherish. It may be the catalyst to share the experience with someone else"
He added the district was thankful and grateful for the opportunity.
"I want to be able to provide more opportunities like that during my time in Marlboro County," McCord said. "And with the help of good partners, we will be able to do it."