Cal running back offers free football tickets to young readers

Patrick Laird visiting with students in a classroom

Patrick Laird visiting with students as part of his summer reading challenge. (Photo by Cal Athletics)

UC Berkeley senior running back Patrick Laird is well known among his teammates for burying his nose in a book. So much so, in fact, that following many of Laird’s nine touchdowns last year, he celebrated by holding his hands in front of his face, miming reading. This summer, the two-time Pac-12 All-Academic selection is sharing his enthusiasm for reading with elementary and middle school students by launching a summer reading challenge.

To participate, students must enroll through Laird’s website. Readers who complete the challenge — a total of four books read by first and second graders and six books for third through sixth graders — will win four free tickets to Cal football’s season opener against North Carolina on September 1.  

Berkeley News caught up with Laird to discuss his summer reading challenge, the origins of his touchdown celebration and what’s on his own summer reading list.

Berkeley News: Where did the idea for your summer reading challenge come from and what attracted you to launching this program?

Patrick Laird: I came up with the idea back in February when I decided that I wasn’t going to do any internships this summer and that my focus would primarily be on football. You can only work out so much during the day though, so I knew I was going to have some free time and I wanted to do something positive and something I’m passionate about. For me, that means education and reading. I came up with the idea of the reading challenge and I pitched it some people within Cal Athletics, and they said they would give away four tickets to every student who completes the challenge. I figured out the logistics in April and I’ve been promoting it and visiting with young readers ever since.

How many schools have you visited since launching the challenge?

I’ve gone to 21, I think, and it should be 22 next week. Most of the schools are in the Bay Area, but I’ve visited three in San Luis Obispo County where I’m from — including my old elementary school. I’m just trying to hit as many schools as I can. Usually, I’ll reach out to a teacher or administrator at a school and then we start the scheduling process. Now that this has some momentum, people from schools have started reaching out to me.

What are these visits like? What kind of reaction are you getting from the students?

Patrick Laird giving a speech to young students about reading

Patrick Laird visiting students as part of his summer reading challenge. First and second graders who read four books and third through sixth graders who read six books will be given free tickets to a Cal football game. (Photo by Cal Athletics)

Every trip is a little bit different. Usually it’s assembly-style, where I’m introduced to the kids as Cal football player. A lot of the local ones are great because the students are Cal fans or football fans and they’re usually excited to see me. Some kids already love reading so this is just a bonus for them, while others are just really interested in meeting a college student. Regardless, it’s a lot of fun for me.

Generally, I do a presentation that explains who I am and my passion for reading. I try to portray the importance of reading and then introduce the challenge and walk them through how to sign up. I have information on my website, but I also come to schools with flyers that has information on how to enroll. Parents can sign up their kids or a teacher can sign up their entire class. Once they’re registered, they’re provided with a digital reading journal that they fill out over the summer. The challenge ends on September 1, and if they’ve succeeded in the challenge — reading four books for students in first and second grade or six books for students in third through sixth grade — then they get four free tickets to our game against North Carolina this fall.

Have you seen anything that’s surprised you while you’re visiting these students? 

I went to a school in Oakland where most of the kids there were first-generation students. For many of them, their families are from Guatemala, and I learned that most of these students hadn’t really been able to travel much outside of their neighborhoods. I think it would be so awesome to be able to bring kids from that community up to a game and explore a bit.

How many students have signed up so far?

I haven’t checked in a few days, but the last time I did we were over 2,800. That was actually my goal initially. I wear number 28 so I thought it would be cool, even if it was kind of arbitrary. I’m sure we’re over 3,000 now though. Sign-ups are open all summer too. I just want as many students as possible to participate in this.

After the students sign up, is there any engagement with you over the course of the summer?

I’m trying to create a bit of a reading community with the kids and with the parents as well. I encourage the students to reach out to me directly. I had a kid who signed up for the reading challenge who was also participating in a youth football camp at Cal. At the end of the camp I went up to the field and met with him. He had brought a book that he’d read that he wanted me to sign. I’ve also had kids email me about the most recent book that they read. Mostly I’m trying to make myself available to anyone who wants to reach out to me about this program. Parents, teachers, students — if they’re interested in participating in the challenge, then I’m definitely here for them.

Summer learning loss is an issue that you’re concerned about. How does the summer reading challenge address that?

I found some pretty startling statistics about summer learning loss when I was researching this. Essentially what happens is students get out of school in early June and come back in mid-August, and they don’t really do much reading in the time in between. The result in a decrease in their reading proficiency levels. When the students come back after summer break, they’re often behind where they were at the end of the previous year. A lot of teachers are spending the first six weeks of school re-teaching things from last year. This is a problem that can compound over summers, so by the time students are further in their educational careers, they’ve fallen behind their peers that have been reading year-round.

The four to six books that I recommend in my challenge isn’t an arbitrary number. Research states that that’s the required amount for students to maintain their reading levels when they’re out of school.

Is there anything special planned for the North Carolina game when your summer readers will be in attendance?

We’re still trying to figure out all the details right now, but I’d love it if all of the participants were in one section. I’d also love to have everyone down on the field after the game, either for a meet and greet or one big picture. We’d love to celebrate the students who succeeded in this challenge.

Is there a story behind your touchdown celebration where you mime reading a book? Where did the idea for this come from?

Cal running back Patrick Laird celebrating a touchdown

Cal running back Patrick Laird celebrating a touchdown (Photo by Al Sermeno – KLC Fotos)

The genesis of that was actually two seasons ago when a buddy of mine, Chad Hansen, was scoring a bunch of touchdowns and doing really cool endzone celebrations. After a game we were talking what our teammates would do if they scored. I was a walk-on and special teams player at the point. All my teammates knew I was big reader and into academics, so someone jokingly said that if I ever scored I would probably just read a book to celebrate.

I kept that in mind for about a year and a half, and when I scored against North Carolina last year, I opened my hands to pretend like I was reading. It kind of confused people at first, but the next game I scored three times and I did different variations of it. Cal fans picked up on it after that. I’ve seen people doing that celebration when they see me on campus now. It’s pretty funny seeing people opening books with their hands at me.

What are some of the books that you remember loving as a kid? Are any of them resurfacing now that you’re doing this challenge with younger readers?

One that’s come back is Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey. I was totally into those books when I was a kid and it turns out that he’s written another book recently that kids love called Dog Man. I had forgotten all about Captain Underpants until this challenge.

I still recommend some of my favorite books from my childhood — The Magic Treehouse by Mary Pope Osborne, The Hardy Boys, even though those are kind of outdated, as well as a lot of survival books like My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George and Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.

What’s on your own summer reading list?

I just finished Word by Word by Kory Stamper, who is an editor at Merriam-Webster. It’s basically about how dictionaries are written. I also wrapped up a fantasy book called The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve got some fun stuff that I’m reading.

Do you have any plans on working in education after graduation?

I have a general interest in the education system and ways of improving it, but I don’t think I would be interested in being a teacher. I feel like a lot of the problems that our society is experiencing are due to a lack of education. I know I’m not going to be able to change public policy as a senior in college, but I realized that I could do something right now by increasing the educational experience of 3,000 students this summer.

Emotionally, this experience has just been really awesome. It’s so much fun to talk with these kids. I love seeing them get excited about reading and getting to spend time with them. I’m really looking forward to seeing how many people can make it to the game in September.