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Falcons give back to the kids
Atlanta Falcons' Joe Zelenka holds Challenged Child and Friends student Isaac Hubbard during a Challenged Child fundraising event at the Oasis Bowling Center in Buford on Wednesday evening. - photo by Tom Reed

BUFORD — As 7-year-old Hunter Jones slid across the floor, 6-foot-3, 260-pound Joe Zelenka scooted right behind him.

Every time Hunter moved, so did Zelenka, the Atlanta Falcons’ long snapper who was having a little fun with a new friend during Wednesday’s Challenged Child and Friends bowling event at the Oasis Bowling Center.

“You could have me in here with 10 kids and we’ll have some fun,” Zelenka said. “I’d be tired and sweaty, but it’ll be fun.”

Along with several of his teammates and a handful of cheerleaders, Zelenka was on hand to help raise scholarship money for Challenged Child, a Gainesville-based early-intervention center that specializes in working with children with disabilities.

The Falcons have been partners with Challenged Child for more than 10 years, and according to fundraising coordinator Gail Schneider, that relationship is priceless.

“They’re great partners and we’re very fortunate to be able to work with the Atlanta Falcons,” Schneider said. “It’s amazing to see these great big guys with our little kids, and they’re great with them.”

Not a minute went by without some sort of interaction between a player, cheerleader and child. Photos were taken. Footballs were signed. Smiles were everywhere.

“It’s awesome to see these kids get out and have fun and put a smile on their faces,” said Garrett Reynolds, who participated in the annual event as a rookie last year. “We’ve all been looking forward to this.”

Standing at 6-7 and weighing 310 pounds, sometimes getting the kids to smile is difficult for Reynolds.

“Just nonstop smiling,” Reynolds said on how he combats possibly intimidating the children. “Sometimes it takes them a while to warm up, but eventually they do and we have a good time.

“I try not to scare them too much.”

That’s one of the reasons why the players get down to the children’s level, interact with them as if they were their own, and do everything they can to make them feel comfortable.

“It’s amazing that the Falcons would want to help out a program like Challenged Child,” said Hunter’s mom, Delana. “They’re so spirited with these children and you really see their heart.”

According to Zelenka, they're really just showing their true age.

“There’s a big correlation between football players and kids,” Zelenka said. “We get along because we’re kids at heart.
“These guys that are here are a bunch of big kids,” he added. “We like to play, we like to laugh, and when you get us around real little kids, we’re going to have fun.

“We’re going to laugh, we’re going to giggle and somebody’s going to wind up getting tickled at some point and it’s normally me.”

Being able to act like a kid again makes this type of event special for the players, who realize how big an impact they have on children.

“We might not be Matt Ryan or Tony Gonzalez, but to these kids we are the big stars,” Zelenka said. “We have the jerseys on and we play for the Falcons, so that’s really cool.”

Cool to some kids, but not to others.

“He likes the cheerleaders,” said Rhonda Strange in reference to her 4-year-old grandson Issac Hubbard, who has cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus.

Strange knows the benefit of events like Wednesday’s bowling outing because through the help of Challenged Child, Issac has reached an age that doctors only gave him a 10 percent chance of seeing.

“If it weren’t for events like this, he wouldn’t be here,” Strange said.

While not as severe for Hunter, who has Down syndrome, his mother is also thankful for the support and activities that Challenged Child provides.

“Anything to help him have a better day is worth it,” Jones said. “Just knowing that he can come out to these types of events and not have a total meltdown puts a smile on my face because we got to do something and we got to show him off and really get out there and promote awareness.”

All with the help of an NFL franchise.

“These uniforms and being in the NFL gives you a great platform and allows you to do some things you may not have been able to do,” Reynolds said. “These kids see the jerseys and you go up there and talk to them and they just brighten up.”

And that’s what these types of events are all about.

“We only get to play this game for a short while,” Zelenka said. “The simple fact that someone would call up and say, ‘hey, we need some celebrities,’ — and they consider us celebrities — that’s awesome for us.

“We’re going to come out and support a great organization that helps out kids and just love on them for a little bit and bless them.”

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