Russell Okung honors modern-day Heroes in the Classroom

Posted May 24, 2013

When the teachers who were being honored as Symetra Heroes in the Classroom reached the Seahawks’ locker room at CenturyLink Field on Friday afternoon, they were greeted by one surprise after another.

(Photography by Larry Gill)

By his own admission, and in his own words, Russell Okung was “an angry kid who was mad at the world.”

That will happen when your father dies and you rarely see your mother because she is working two or three jobs.

“I would go to school and I’d do everything,” said Okung, the Seahawks’ Pro Bowl left tackle. “I’d put gum all over their table. I’d knock pens off the table. I’d talk in class, or I’d be fighting in class. I was always in detention. I remember a time when I had detention for 21 days.

“I was just being a bad kid. That’s just the type of kid I was.”

Until Okung got into the fourth grade and met his match in Mrs. Howell and Mrs. Cook.

“Those two teachers, they believed in me,” he said. “They took me aside and they took that extra step to get me right. They had a level of belief in me that I didn’t have in myself. The patience they showed in me paid off.

“I didn’t realize it then, but they were my parents away from home. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be the man I am today.”

Okung shared that story on Friday afternoon with 24 teachers who were being honored in the Symetra Heroes in the Classroom program. The teachers who comprise the Symetra Class of 2012-13 had lunch at CenturyLink Field and then took a tour of the stadium the Seahawks have called home since 2002.

The last stop? The locker room, where Okung was waiting as a surprise speaker – all 6 feet 5, 310 pounds of him.

“That’s the thing about it, you never know the impact you have on a child’s life just by what you’re doing and what you can do for them,” Okung said. “These people have hundreds of kids go through their lives and they’re obviously doing their part. And that’s what it’s all about.”

None of the teachers who were being honored got into teaching for individual rewards. For them, it’s all about the kids – which is one of the biggest reasons they were selected as Heroes.

“The best thing about it was that Symetra and the Seahawks gave a donation to our school, which helped our kids a lot,” said Lane Helgeson, who teaches at Tiger Mountain Community High School. “That was the best thing about it, that it helped our kids directly and immediately.

“And it really is about the kids, right?”

That also makes being recognized for their efforts even more special, and the last stop put it over the top.

“This is a great perk,” Helgeson said. “We love this. This is wonderful.”

As Helgeson entered the room and spotted his name on a placard above one of the lockers he offered, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Also in each locker was a photo of the teacher and other mementoes from their memorable afternoon.

Helgeson has the size to have been a football player in high school, if not college. Not so, said the look on his face when the question was asked.

“I just eat a lot of donuts,” he said, rubbing his hands across his stomach. “Even if I’m really, really tired at the end of the day, I’ll do one sit up and go to bed. So that’s how I maintain this physique.”

For Kelly Kosir, a kindergarten teacher from Talbot Hill Elementary School, the added thrill came after she removed her placard and realized she was “sharing” the locker of defensive end Red Bryant.

“Red is my favorite player,” said Kosir, who grew up in Renton and is a Seahawks season-ticket holder. “Well, I mean I have others – Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson. But I love Red, because I like to represent players who aren’t represented. Come on, Red’s on defense and doing the dirty work.”

Kosir agreed with Helgeson that working with the children is the reward that comes from teaching.

“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “And I love working with kindergarteners. It’s really fun. I don’t have kids yet, so they’re like my kids.”

The fact that “her kids” feed Kosir’s Seahawks fetish isn’t so bad either.

“Every year for my birthday, they always bring me Seahawks stuff,” Kosir said. “I have all this Seahawks stuff, because they know that’s what I love.”

The 2012-2013 Heroes also included: Andrea Gollob, Highlands Elementary School; Brooke Freeburg, Stevens Elementary School; Cathy Daly, Alexander Graham Bell Elementary School; Damon Oliveto, Shorewood High School; Elle Parsons, Health Sciences & Human Services High School; Frank Kleyn, Highland Terrace Elementary School; Jessica Scott, International School; Julie Parker, McGilvra Elementary School; Laurie Pearson, Lake Forest Park Elementary School; Liz Villa, Issaquah Middle School; Lori Henry, Kellogg Middle School; Lyn Nelthropp, Global Connections High School; Mary Thurber, Einstein Middle School; Patricia Magnusson, Loyal Heights Elementary School; Paul Chappell, Leschi Elementary School; Paula Ferguson, Redmond High School; Paula Lorence, Valley Christian School; Regina Grubb, Auburn Mountainview High School; Robin Russell, Open Window School; Sara Olson, Renton High School; Sarah Sweeny, Kenmore Elementary School; Stephanie Pender, Dimmitt Middle School.

“This is just to say thanks for all the work they’re doing,” Okung said after speaking to the group. “And it’s a great pleasure to be here to honor them.”