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Hawkins helps deliver important message to students

CANARSIE, N.Y. -- For one day only, the Academy for Conservation and the Environment had some new big men on campus. Pro athletes Justin Tuck of the New York Giants and LaTroy Hawkins of the New York Mets teamed with celebrity chef Rocco DeSpirito on Monday to speak to the students at A.C.E. about the long-term benefits of living a healthy lifestyle.

Tuck and Hawkins both entered the gym at A.C.E. to a hero's welcome, and they each spoke in turn to the assembled student body before they got to the point of their visit. Tuck and Hawkins, along with emissaries from Westin Hotels & Resorts, were on hand to unveil a brand new exercise room for use by the 250 students on campus.

Tuck, a star defensive end for the Giants, said that he'd likely be spending time with his family and working out if he hadn't come to Brooklyn for the day. And that's exactly the point. Tuck, a pitch-man for Subway, said that healthy living has become second nature because he's spent a good portion of his life obsessing over how he treats his body.

"Not only do I speak about it, I try my best to live it," said Tuck. "Everybody looks at it as, 'I'm an athlete, I'm supposed to eat healthy,' but clean living helps you out in any walk of life. I've got people that never picked up a ball or probably never picked up weights, but they're always walking, always being active, always watching what they put in their body.

"And those are some of the most happy and energetic people I know. It's proven that clean eating, exercise, getting your rest definitely benefits the body. You only get one of these, and I'm definitely going to try my best to do my best with mine."

That was the message of the day for the students, and it's a theme that has carried Westin all the way through April. Westin had previously visited a firehouse in Los Angeles and Lenox Hill Hospital as part of their "Make Mondays Better" initiative, and the visit to A.C.E. included a gift to several teachers of a free weekend at a Westin resort.

The whole day, funded by Westin in partnership with HealthCorps, was about health and combating the obesity epidemic that's growing in America. DeSpirito said in his address to the students that 67 percent of Americans are overweight and that 25 percent of school-aged children are obese, stressing moment to moment the importance of taking care of your body.

DeSpirito said that he's been working with HealthCorps -- a not-for-profit organization founded by physician and television personality Dr. Mehmet Oz -- to make a difference a little bit at a time. And school visit by school visit, the word is getting out. DeSpirito spoke first Monday, and then he fed the students sugar-free ice pops and ceded the floor to Tuck and Hawkins.

Hawkins, who, at 40, is one of the oldest players in Major League Baseball, stressed to the students that he's put countless hours of his life into nutrition and exercise. Later, Hawkins found some time to sign baseballs and to give pointers on how to use the gym equipment properly. That, if manager Terry Collins asks, is how the veteran reliever spent his day off.

"I like putting a smile on kids' faces," said Hawkins, who hails from Gary, Indiana. "I grew up in a neighborhood that was inner-city. We didn't have much. I always said if I had a chance to get out of my neighborhood and make some money, I would always give back whether it was money or time. I think time is more important than money in most occasions."

A.C.E. has had HealthCorps help them with some health-based curriculum, and Westin's generosity will be felt in the form of a $25,000 renovation to the school's fitness center. LifeFitness donated some of the equipment to the gym, which will feature a strength machine, weight racks, benches, resistance bands and exercise balls for the student body to use.

The gym -- and the day's visitors -- were a surprise to the students, resulting in two animated reactions. The first one came when the players were announced and walked through the doors, and the second came after Hawkins and Tuck told the students about their new gym. The reaction was deafening, and Tuck said he was caught a little bit off guard.

"I know in high school, I was trying to be the coolest guy in the building," he said. "You don't expect to get cheers in high school, but they were really engaging and they seemed to enjoy the [event]. I think they understand the importance of it. Health is becoming an epidemic in our country. They're excited to see someone step up and make some changes."

Hawkins has been in the big leagues since 1995, but he's in his first season with the Mets. He joked at one point that the students were more excited to see Tuck than they were to see him, but he knows the message is bigger than any one person. Living healthy is a message that has equal relevance to both genders and to people of any age.

"I've talked to some of the athletes, and they can't wait to get in here and start using some of the equipment so they can raise their game to the next level," said Hawkins of the school's new gym. "It's always great to try to get that message out to young kids, to try to lay the foundation to a healthy life, healthy eating and a very active life. If you can get that message across to kids and they can apply it -- if they have the discipline to do it -- they're going to lead long and healthy lives."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for

New York Mets, LaTroy Hawkins