There wasn’t any time for somber goodbyes on the last day of Jonathan Wallace’s internship at Cary Woods Elementary.
Wallace’s original plan for Monday afternoon was to volunteer at the Cary Woods’ after-school program where he’d visit one last time with the teachers and kids he came to know during his two-month placement at the school.
When the Auburn wide receiver, and co-captain, opened the gymnasium door to greet his students, he never expected the festive celebration waiting for him.
Wallace’s parents, Michelle and Anthony Wallace, welcomed him to the gym, along with teammates Tray Matthews and DaVonte Lambert, school faculty, the Auburn cheerleading team, Aubie the Tiger and a enthusiastic group of screaming children waving orange and blue pom-poms.
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It was all part of a surprise presentation organized by the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA).
The organization planned the event to award Wallace a trophy for being named to the AFCA’s Good Work Teams in September.
AFCA annually recognizes a group of 22 college football players, 11 from Division 1, for the contributions they make in their communities. Wallace was selected for the honor from a record 197 nominations.
Wallace earned the award for his extensive volunteer work during his time at Auburn. He’s involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, serves as a volunteer with the Boys and Girls Club, is a youth mentor with Youth for Christ, and spends time visiting area hospitals to talk with children battling illnesses.
Moments before Wallace’s arrival, his mother marveled at all the people in attendance looking to show their appreciation for her son.
Organizers said they hadn’t intended for the event to be as big as it was, but it was a testament to Wallace’s impact in the community that so many people wanted to be involved.
“It’s so, so great, wonderful really,” Michelle Wallace said, with pride swelling in her voice. “He was an awesome child, and now is an awesome adult.”
After accepting the award, Jonathan Wallace jumped in front of the podium towards the sea of children for a group photo.
Kids squealed as photographers lined up to take a shot with “Coach Wallace,” as they affectionately call him.
In his brief remarks Monday, Wallace thanked all the students and families at the school for letting him be part of their lives.
Wallace’s genuine appreciation was on display as kids mobbed him to get a closer look at his trophy. He offered a bright smile and high-fives for each one.
For Wallace, his commitment to the internship at Cary Woods wasn’t just about fulfilling a requirement for his Physical Education degree. The opportunity to be a role model and positive influence for young students is a responsibility he takes seriously.
His father, Anthony Wallace, said reaching out to young students is “part of his (son’s) heart.”
Jonathan Wallace credited his parents and three siblings for instilling those values from a young age growing up in Phenix City.
“It was something I was constantly surrounded by, seeing people that had a passion for giving and serving other people,” Wallace said.
The senior smiled as he remembered one of his own role models as a kid — former Central quarterback Kelcy Luke, a 2003 graduate that went to Auburn and then Alabama A&M. Luke set an example Wallace tries to follow to this day.
“I was in their shoes when I was a little kid, looking up to other people,” Wallace said. “To be on the other side of it now, it’s just mind blowing how fast time goes by. You have to cherish every moment that you receive, just being able to share that moment with them; being called a coach, being a mentor and being a role model for them is a humbling experience.”
‘A rock star’
Cary Woods Elementary principal Karen G. Snyder wasn’t sure how Wallace would handle the workload of an internship with the grueling schedule of Auburn’s football team.
In the past, a few Auburn football players worked at the school a couple days a week as part of a practicum program, but never as a five-day-a-week intern.
“I wondered how he was going to make it work, I knew what his responsibilities would be,” Snyder said.
Before she could even voice her concerns, Wallace came to her with assurances that he was ready to do whatever was necessary to complete his hours. His commitment to the job blew her expectations out of the water.
“I did a little research and so I knew I was getting a great guy, but he walks the walk and talks the talk,” Snyder said.
Snyder called Wallace a “rock star” as she described the extra mile he went to get to school early so he could walk a group of kids he became close with to breakfast. Wallace’s patience with the children and his “kind and respectful” nature helped him earn their trust.
“He gets down on their level to talk with them and does it with ease,” Snyder said.
The most meaningful part of the job and volunteer work for Wallace is making those connections with students.
“A lot of fun work,” Wallace said about the internship. “Being able to interact with the kids, engage with them through physical education, teaching them some of our expectations in here to be responsible, respectful, prepared and safe. It’s how we learn to engage with other people, interact with other people and have fun with each other.”
As Wallace’s playing days wind down, he’s starting to map out his career.
While he isn’t going to walk away from the game completely — his tentative plan is to be a graduate assistant for Auburn next year — he’s not done working and volunteering at places like Cary Woods Elementary.
“There have been so many people that have poured into my life, that have given to me, shown me support throughout the years that I’ve have grown up, I want to give that back,” Wallace said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without those people. The small people in my life are the big people because they are the ones that made a difference for me, who showed me the way.”