ORANGE PARK – Eight-year-old Aidan Watt is proof that enthusiasm is contagious.
A die-hard Orange Park High Raiders football fan – mainly because his parents are alums – Aidan’s love of the game recently caught the eye of OPHS history teacher Linda Rhodes.
Rhodes, whose son played offensive right tackle this year as a senior, spotted Aidan’s enthusiasm for the Raiders and invited the young fan to a pre-game meal the following week.
Little did Aidan know, he’d be meeting every member of his favorite football team that night.
“We had really low expectations,” said his mom Kelly Watt. “Not because of the players, but we figured Aidan would get to sit down and see them, maybe ask a few questions, but nothing more. What happened though, brought tears to my eyes.”
When Aidan arrived at the pre-game meal, offensive right tackle James Harry Rhodes, 17, immediately welcomed him in as a Raider himself. Rhodes asked Aidan dozens of questions about anything and everything and offered Aidan advice in whatever way he could, according to Watt.
“He just acted like a mentor who’s known Aidan his entire life, even though they only just met minutes before,” Watt said.
This might have been because of Rhodes’ work with his church. Rhodes used to work with the children’s ministry at his church, where he helped give kids role models, mentors and just someone to look up to.
“We just always tried to ensure the kids knew they had somebody to talk to,” Rhodes said.
That’s exactly what happened when Aidan arrived at the Raiders pregame meal on Nov. 2, and in no time, the rest of the Raiders took to Aidan the same way Rhodes did.
“The coach mentioned that the team had a special guest [Aidan] who had a team playbook and in a second, the boys had swarmed Aidan, autographing his book and asking him questions,” Watt said. “It was truly a sight to behold.”
According to Watt, the excitement didn’t end there because Rhodes asked if the team could take a picture with Aidan. After a shy yes from Aidan, the team quickly propped Aidan up on Rhodes’ shoulders and smiled alongside Aidan. For him, this was a moment he would never forget.
“It was the best experience of my whole life,” he said. “It was really cool that I got to meet all of the players. Most people my age don’t get to meet high school football players and they were really nice,” Aidan said.
The camaraderie didn’t end there. Before Aidan left, Rhodes told Aidan he would attend one of his upcoming soccer games. Aidan, didn’t really believe it at first, but on Nov. 17, Rhodes’ kept his promise.
“They actually came to my soccer game and I was so surprised,” Aidan said.
Not only did Rhodes attend, but his entire family, including his brother, who is a football player at Stetson University, attended as well. Aidan said meeting a college football player was almost as cool as meeting the Raiders.
While Aidan had nothing but the best of thoughts regarding the high school football players, both Rhodes and Watt acknowledged some of the stereotypes high school football players face.
“We usually fit into the jock stereotype,” Rhodes said. “We’re too cool to care about something, but that’s not the experience I’ve had and it’s not how it is with the Raiders. These connections are what matter most. Kids like Aidan are inspirational, and it really got our team spirit on fire that night. We performed against Fleming Island High School better than we ever had before.”
Watt, who works for the Clay County School District as the Social Studies Curriculum Specialist, said that working so closely with students like the ones that fill the halls of Clay County schools, she sees the perception football players can get.
“They’re not perceived well sometimes and that’s a shame,” Watt said. “There was nothing but positivity in that room. It was about people looking out for people and it really showed me what an amazing team they were.
“They probably had no idea what role models they are. They aren’t just teenage football players – they’re role models, and I’m so excited and so proud and so grateful that we have these boys to serve as inspiration for these young people, young people like Aidan,” she said.