JERSEY CITY — The air was thick with dreams in the auditorium of William L. Dickinson High School, and New York Giants punter Steve Weatherford's giant Skype face was overseeing the scene like the Wizard of Oz.
An "Oz" with a purposely goofy Skype profile photo and a backwards baseball cap, anyway.
At the 11 a.m. April 1 event, Weatherford, 32, announced the five student winners of his anti-bullying essay contest, who, with their dates, were getting an all-expense-paid prom (hair, clothes, makeup, transportation) through his second Weatherford World Champion Foundation's Project Prom.
The winners, chosen among more than 140 students who submitted essays, were Taina Cortes, Nile Batista, Umama Kahn, Anthony Davila, and Brianni Thomas. Weatherford congratulated them as they came up, telling one boy he'd "never be as strong" as he is, no matter how much he works out.
"I'm shaking. I've never won something like this before," said Cortes, 19, afterward.
Asked about her essay, she said had been bullied in the past for her weight and she started taking more care of herself. "Where I live there's a lot of stuff that happens," she said. "In order to get out, I have to better myself... Everybody has a chance."
Another 21 student semi-finalists were promised an autographed photo of Weatherford.
The other lucky "winner" of the day was senior Vikki Serrano, who asked Weatherford to prom. (Weatherford, who also accepted a student's invite to the Bayonne High School prom last year, said "I would love to.")
The biggest bombshell of the afternoon, though, was the Giants' $25,000 donation to the May 8 prom, to be held in West Orange. The announcement got students screaming when they learned this means all 350 seniors will get the cost of a prom ticket reduced from $100 to $30.
In 2014, Weatherford started his Project Prom at a school in South Jersey, which had been closely impacted by Hurricane Sandy.
That school submitted 20 essays on the positive effects of Hurricane Sandy, according to Weatherford's friend, and the owner of his off-season gym Next Level Training, Donald Shauger. This year, Shauger said, Weatherford, a Hoboken resident, picked Dickinson High School in part because it's closer to Giants Stadium and has an early prom (Weatherford's wife is due with a child at the end of May).
Via Skype, Weatherford also explained to the students in the high-poverty district that he grew up in a trailer park in Indiana.
This year's essay contest is personal, Shauger said: Weatherford had been bullied in high school as "a small 120-, 130-pound kid."
According to this year's winner Batista, 18, his essay was about how he went from being not "the most kind person" to realizing bullying has a negative effect. He said he was influenced by the 2010 suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi.
According to senior class advisors Jaime Barker and John Barth, no one has previously donated to the high school's prom like this, but there are always dress donations for female students.
Also, every year "six to 10" teachers, on their own initiative, will donate a $100 prom ticket for a student who can't otherwise afford it, Barth said.
"We have a very generous faculty," he said."If they don't take care of the ticket, they'll take care of the dress."
What Weatherford did is about more than just a big party, said Principal Frederick Williams.
"These are kids that are sometimes forgotten. We're an urban district, and sometimes urban districts get a bad reputation - you know, good, bad and different," he said.
"This has reinvigorated their drive and their energy to know that someone outside of these walls cared," the principal said. "They needed this. They really needed this."
Laura Herzog | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com | April 2, 2015