Tuscola’s football players have heard the phrase “Go Mountaineers” from a number of different people: coaches, teammates, parents, fans, etc. One place they probably never expected to hear it was in a personalized video message from Carolina Panthers stars Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson.

Friday, in Tuscola’s auditorium, that’s exactly what happened. As part of the Panthers and Blue Cross and Blue Shield North Carolina’s Fit Wear it Like a Pro Program, Tuscola won an online vote between all registered 3A schools in North Carolina to win 12 brand-new Riddell SpeedFlex Helmets from the Panthers.

“High school sports and high school football are obviously a focus or our communications department,”said Nick Kusko of the Panthers’ Sponsor and Client Services team. “And high school athletics and leadership is a focus of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina as well. So this was just an organic fit for both us and Blue Cross. To go to these schools and award these helmets, just to see how much they appreciate them and the excitement, sometimes even rejeuvenating programs. It’s just a great program for us and after the second year here, we’ve just been really proud of how it all came together.”

A representative from the Panthers brought the Mountaineers a custom helmet with both their logo and that of the Panthers on it, and showed the team the custom video. For Tuscola Athletics and the football program, being able to provide the players with improved safety equipment at no cost is a huge help.

“There’s a couple different aspects to look at,” said Tuscola Athletics Director Michael Belue. “Financially, it’s a big boost to the football program. Safety is the number one issue in any contact sport like football, so having the best equipment for our student-athletes is of the upmost importance to us. So being financially able to provide those helmets for our young men is key to us having a successful program and to sustain that program. It’s just a great financial relief that the Panthers have provided us with, these new SpeedFlex helmets to ensure safety for our players.”

After the video, the players cheered and passed the helmet around in awe. The video of their reactions will be posted to the Panthers’ social media account and on the video board at the team’s Dec. 1 home game against the Washington Redskins.

For the Panthers’ organization, seeing what this means to the high school athletes makes it all worth it.

“There’s a lot of effort from things you wouldn’t even realize that go into this program,” Kusko said. “To make it what it is, to award these schools helmets and just to set up the voting component on the front end and working with the company with that, working with Riddell, just a lot of things you wouldn’t think of. It’s a lot of work and a lot of people involved, but just to see the reaction and the genuine excitement of these teams, the players and coaches is worth it and it’s a reminder to us that we’re positively impacting our community.”

Many of the Tuscola players in the auditorium on that day sported Panthers gear, and getting to hear a personalized message from their heroes was something they’ll never forget.

“I’ll definitely remember this for the rest of my life,” said junior Greg Harrison. “It’s so special; I don’t even know how to put it into words.”

It meant a lot to the school’s athletic program for the players to have that experience as well.

“From the time you’re little and you’re playing football, you have dreams of playing professionally one day and playing for the home team like the Carolina Panthers is the dream of a lof of our kids,” Belue said. “We have a lot of Panthers fans and to have a personalized message from a guy like Luke Kuechly, who’s a great individual on and off the field, it really pumps them up and it’s exciting for these kids.”

“That’s something that will stick with these kids for probably their whole life. They can always tell that story of when Luke Kuechly delivered a personalized message to the Mountaineers.”

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