JERSEY CITY - New York Giants Punter Steve Weatherford is treating five Dickinson High School students to the prom experience of a lifetime.
After weeks of rumors about a big prom surprise, the 527 seniors of Dickinson High School gathered in the auditorium today to watch a homemade video of Weatherford announcing that he has chosen their school for his second annual Project Prom initiative.
Weatherford, 32, started Project Prom last year as an essay contest for high school seniors to express their experiences of overcoming adversity. All Dickinson seniors will be required to write a 400- to 500-word essay addressing this year's topic: bullying.
"A prom is something you can never replace" Weatherford said today during a phone interview from San Diego. "It's a rite of passage, a culmination of your childhood. It's when kids really become adults. It's a celebration of all of your hard work over 18 years and something I feel good to be a part of."
The five students who write the top essays will be treated by Weatherford to an all expenses paid prom including tuxedos and gowns, hair stylists and accessories, and limo service to and from the prom. In addition, Weatherford will be attending the prom, which is being held at the Mayfair in West Orange in May.
The essays will be judged by a panel that includes New Jersey Assemblyman John McKeon, sports anchors Duke Castiglione and Bruce Beck, and the President of the Board of Trustees for the Boys and Girls Club of New Jersey, Nuno Francisco.
The former Super Bowl champion, whose contest is part of his Steve Weatherford World Champion Foundation, said this year's theme of bullying was inspired by his personal experiences in high school.
"I was bullied as a kid and it's a miserable experience going to school knowing your going to be picked on because you're little," the now 6-foot-2, 210-pound athlete said. "We need to teach kids that it takes just as much effort to be kind to someone as it does to put them down. I am in a position as a football player to raise the bullying platform and help kids feel good rather than putting them down."
But this won't be Weatherford's first Hudson County prom. Last April, Bayonne High School student Lauren Delbert tweeted a prom invite to Weatherford, which he accepted. A month and a half later, the NFL punter was walking the red carpet with the Bayonne High School student on prom night before a media circus at the school.
After launching Project Prom at Southern Regional High School a year ago, Weatherford said that he chose Dickinson for this year's contest because he wanted to select a high school close to the Giants' home, MetLife Stadium.
Upon hearing Weatherford's plans for their prom, the Dickinson seniors erupted in cheers. Many had no idea what the surprise was going to be, and few could have predicted it would come from a professional athlete.
"When I found out Steve was coming to our prom I was like, 'Oh my God, this is not happening this is not real,'" said senior Miranda Mendoza. "I am definitely going to try to get a slow dance with Steve."
"I knew there was a surprise guest involved but I thought it was going to be like (actor) Michelle Rodriguez or (singer) Akon because they are from the Heights," said senior Angelina Sapolito. "But when they said it was an NFL player I was excited and then when I saw his picture I was like 'wow'".
Sapolito added that she is going to ask Weatherford to be her date on Twitter, just as Delbert had.
While Weatherford wasn't in attendance for the announcement, Donald Shauger, owner of Next Level Training -- the company Weatherford uses for training -- was there to help deliver the news to the students.
Dickinson Principal Dr. Frederick Williams was grateful that somebody as prominent as Weatherford was taking an interest in his students.
"I think this has instilled some sort of promise for the kids that they may be young but someone out there is really thinking about them and their well-being and wants to push them into a level of success," said Williams. "They are very excited and they are proud that their school was chosen."
Weatherford, who's married with three -- soon to be four -- children, said he hopes to expand his contest to other NFL teams and more high schools. But for now, he's just looking forward to cutting up a rug with the Dickinson students.
"I'm probably looking forward to the prom more than the kids are because I already know about the buildup and the anticipation," said Weatherford. "It's safe to say that I am a prom veteran. It's the funnest party you will ever go to."
Matthew Speiser | The Jersey Journal | February 25, 2015
Photos: Amanda Eisenberg | The Jersey Journal