As Anthony Walker Jr. walked around the classroom at Maple Leaf Elementary School, he stopped to look at the designs the kids were drawing on templates of a pair of cleats. Students peppered him with questions about his favorite color and other interests, asking him what he would like on his cleats. Others asked him about the Browns and football.
Both Walker and Charlie Thomas III chose to represent the Stay in the Game! Attendance Network for the 2023 My Cause My Cleats campaign. In October, 15 students from across Garfield Heights City Schools from elementary to high school age, participated to help design the cleats for both Walker and Thomas. Those students were selected to take part based on their improved attendance.
"Unique is the best way I can put it," Walker said. "You listen to the kids and how selfless they are, (asking) what's your favorite color? What do you want on it? And I'm like, 'No, you guys be creative.' But how unselfish they are and great people they are. They want to really support us. And we understand that and appreciate them for that. But it's our turn to do our part and come support them and really encourage them. So, it was a pretty awesome event."
Gina Wilson – the Stay in the Game! representative for Garfield Heights City Schools – watched the excitement spread across the students' faces as Walker and Thomas walked into the classroom, as well as how they interacted with Walker and Thomas throughout the event, and it brought a sense of pride to Wilson.
"It really means everything," she said. "I think it really shows that their hard work pays off. And I think it was important to highlight them in the beginning to show them that they are the reason why they're here because of their hard work and dedication to come to school every day. And not only come to school and be present, but to make sure that they're doing everything that they can to ensure that grades are well, that they are dedicated and engaged, and those are all words that they used for themselves. So, it makes me happy and makes me proud."
After all the students submitted their drawings, Jonathan Hrusovsky – a local Cleveland artist of Hrusovsky's Custom Kicks – compiled the elements from the students' drawings into the design on the cleats. Hrusovsky has worked with former Browns players before like Austin Hooper for My Cause Cleats and jumped at another opportunity to do so this season with Walker and Thomas.
For Hrusovsky, incorporating the students' drawings into the design is a special task because it allows him to highlight the creativity of the students and their minds. Hrusovsky said that some of his favorite designs in his career have been ones where he's worked with people in the community.
"It's really the kids' designs and that's what really makes it (special)," Hrusovsky said. "Like I love to get that feeling out of it. And our world is filled with many, many creative kids, and imaginations out there. And to have a small little part into that is just amazing."
My Cause My Cleats was first launched in 2016, creating a connection between the NFL and players, allowing them to create their art and represent philanthropic organizations, passions and movements through individual designs. This year, My Cause My Cleats will take place in Week 13 across the league, and the Browns will play the Rams in Los Angeles.
Walker has been an ambassador for Stay in the Game! Attendance Network and the Cleveland Browns Foundation this season. The Stay in the Game! Attendance Network aims to support students while striving to increase school attendance.
He's hosted a few events with the Stay in the Game! Attendance Network to help promote improved school attendance, like an event he hosted at Shaker Heights Middle School on Sept. 5, where he donated backpacks and school supplies to those students.
As he contemplated what he would represent on his cleats for My Cause My Cleats this season, he was inspired by his involvement in the Stay in the Game! Attendance Network.
"Being a brand ambassador and supporting these kids, man, you want them to know that we have their back," Walker said. "Events like this, where they can just design cleats for us to wear in that game, it'd be pretty awesome. So that's why I did it."
Education holds a significant role in Walker's life. His father, Anthony Walker Sr., has been a lifelong educator. He's the dean of students at Walker's high school at Monsignor Edward Pace in Miami Gardens, Fl, as well as the head football coach.
Walker said his father instilled the importance of school in him, especially as he pursued the NFL. Attending college was not just about playing college football – academics mattered.
"I think I just really enjoyed going to school really early," Walker said. "I had some really good friends that I met, and we were in the same class together all the way growing up. So, that's when I think about it the most. I didn't have a cell phone, so going to school was my (way of) catching up with my friends every day and whatever show you saw on TV, we could talk about it in school. And that was the major part for me."
While Walker was involved in high school in multiple extracurricular activities like yearbook and was a member of the National Honor Society – and boasted perfect attendance – he did not fully grasp the importance of his education until he attended college at Northwestern.
"Academics became huge when I got to college," Walker said. "High school, obviously I'm trying to go to college and understanding the importance of having good grades and all that; but for me, it was just going to school to be around my friends and developing those social skills and competing in PE."
Even now as a seven-year NFL player, Walker has not wavered in the belief in the importance of attending school. It helped shape the type of teammate and leader that he is in the locker room, as well as who he is as a person off the field.
"I understand how hard it is sometimes when you grow up in a difficult environment," Walker said recently. "How hard it is to get to school every day. Sometimes you don't have a ride. Sometimes you don't just have someone telling you and pushing you to do it. So again, I really appreciate Stay In the Game! really pushing that initiative for those students, because at the end of the day, I know how big of a role it played in my life and I know how big of a role it will play in those kids' life."
As Walker sat at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus and opened a shoe box to see his cleats, a smile spread across his face as he saw the design. The shoes featured the Stay in the Game! logo, as well as words like "hard work" and "dedication," as well as the phrase "Keep learning every day," which Walker said is a mantra that he lives by. He turned them over and admired the inclusion of the color purple on the bottom of the cleat to represent Northwestern, and his face lit up with excitement.
"These are really special to me, man," Walker said when he saw the cleats. "All these kids did a great job. I'll be proud to wear these cleats for sure."