Thursdays with stories: Horizon football players make weekly visits to elementary schools

Horizon defensive lineman Casey Hixson reads to a group of elementary school students at one of many visits the team makes to various schools. (Photo by Brooklyn Hall/ Cronkite News)

Horizon assistant football coach Tre Hickem gives out football tickets to sixth-graders at Desert Shadows Elementary School. Hickem came up with the idea to help his players be more involved with the community. (Photo by Brooklyn Hall/ Cronkite News)

SCOTTSDALE – From the moment he walks into Desert Shadows Elementary School, Tre Hickem is the most popular guy around.

Horizon High School’s assistant defensive line coach is greeted with high-fives and fist bumps from students that pass him in the hallway. Horizon football players follow him. It’s a typical Thursday during the regular season at another local elementary school in the Paradise Valley School District, where Hickem takes his seniors every week to spend time and make an impact with younger students. While Horizon searches for the second win in history against Pinnacle Friday, the kids come first.

“The message behind this is about making young men into men,” Hickem said. “Obviously, when they’re graduating next year, I want them to be accomplished, more than just not student-athletes of the game. Just to focus on other people.”

The idea was sparked last year when Hickem realized seniors get out of school around lunch time, allowing plenty of time and the perfect opportunity for players to connect with the kids who look up to them. Hickem wanted to find a way to give back to the community, one of his many passions.

Understanding the role his program plays within its community is a message that Horizon coach Andy Litten has pushed onto his team for the past two seasons.

“This really just fits with all of our philosophy, our program, this is started 100% by Tre,” Litten said. “He took the initiative through his work and his passion to start reading to kids, and then involved our kids. He’s just been a great role model to our younger guys. I’m very proud of coach for taking that initiative.”

For the players, it’s an experience they remember from the time they were in elementary school. Now it’s an opportunity to give back.

“When I was younger, I had opportunities to have a football team come out and show me and give me and so I’m trying to give back to the community,” said senior quarterback Roman Funk, “the same way they gave to me.”

On Thursday, Hickem and his players paid a visit to Desert Shadows and spent 90 minutes with kindergartners, second-graders and sixth-graders.

In a second-grade class, Horizon’s Casey Hixon and Fernando Vasquez read fables to the students and helped them point out the lessons they learned from the stories. Following the book reading, Hixon pulled a student aside and gave him a free snack bar meal ticket for their next home game on Oct. 7. Hickem had talked with teachers beforehand and knew this particular student had been working hard, especially after visiting with the football players.

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In the kindergarten class, the football players taught the students about the game of football and the importance of teamwork. Together with the students, the players built field goals out of pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks and tape. At the end of their field-goal building, the kindergarten class gave two players gift baskets with their favorite snacks ahead of their game.

For the sixth-graders, Hickem and his players rewarded the students for their hard work with a free snack bar meal ticket. Students can redeem their meals at home games between Oct. 28 and Nov. 7, and it gives them a chance to experience football at Horizon. They also had a special gift for the entire team: cards and letters they made, wishing the players good luck on their upcoming games.

“We want people to understand how great an atmosphere it is,” Litten said. “It’s a celebration of football. We have music and our students section always brings it. And anytime that we can get the community involved to see that, we’re all about it.”

Hickem’s program has helped change the players’ outlook about themselves and life.

“It’s just helped me become a better person myself, seeing those kids seeing where I used to be,” Hixon said. “It’s helped me create a better image for myself in the future. And it’s helped me just support the community.”

The players’ impact on the young students starts when they enter the room and continues even after they’re gone.

“I had my first kid come up to me after one of the games. He came out and came and saw me,” Horizon lineman Noah Anderson said. “So it was really cool to see how excited they get when we all come. Their teachers always tell us they ask about us when we are away. It’s cool seeing how they are all super happy.”

Madison Thacker mad-uh-sun thack-er (she/her/hers)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Madison Thacker expects to graduate in December 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Thacker has interned as a reporter with The Arizona Republic.

Brooklyn Hall BROOK-lyn hall (she/her)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Brooklyn Hall expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Hall has interned with the Amarillo Sod Poodles and is currently interning with the Arizona Diamondbacks on their DBTV crew.