The bright lights and television cameras were already some 375 miles east of Santa Monica, diehard football fans converging on the host city, players augmenting the spectacle with headline-grabbing sound bites, coaches preparing for America’s most prominent sporting event.
The action was at Olympic High School.
A white envelope was delicately carried from the parking lot, through a side door of the building and into a nondescript hallway with little more than sand-colored walls and restrooms.
There, just four days before the Super Bowl, Trenton McWhorter allowed a quick grin as he received his prize: two tickets to watch his favorite team, the New England Patriots, face the defending champion Seattle Seahawks on the NFL’s biggest stage.
McWhorter, 19, who attends the Santa Monica-Malibu district’s continuation school, earned the coveted seats with his entry in a timed writing contest that drew submissions from students throughout the community.
“It took me a while to think of something, to do a real story,” he said. “But I thought it was good enough to win because it came from the heart.”
On Saturday, he and his stepfather, Glen Kirkpatrick, will fly to Arizona. On Sunday afternoon, they will enter University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale and make their way to consecutive chairs in section 420, row 17.
Never mind that the tickets, each with a face value of $800, would easily go for thousands on the secondary market: There was no doubt McWhorter would absorb the game in person, perhaps to validate his victory in a competition he could’ve dismissed, maybe to represent his classmates and friends, certainly because he loves football.
“I’m pretty excited,” he said.
When McWhorter opened the envelope, though, he had already known about his accomplishment — and prime reward — for a couple weeks.
On New Year’s Eve, he worked a particularly busy overnight shift at Denny’s. He returned home and went to bed as the New Year’s Day sun was rising, but he didn’t rest for long: Kirkpatrick received a call that morning from Carlos Cymerman, who organized the writing contest.
“It was a shocker,” Kirkpatrick said. “Trenton woke up out of a dead sleep. When Carlos told me he won the tickets, I put the phone on speaker and asked him to say it again. He jumps up and runs around. ‘I won the tickets, I won the rickets! All right, all right, all right!’ It doesn’t get any better.”
Moments like that one convince Cymerman, 46, that his work is worthwhile. A local recruiter with a charitable sensibility, he uses proceeds from job placements to fund trips and activities for others. (He secured the Super Bowl seats with the assistance of his longtime friend, Kenny Forman, a ticket broker with Encino-based First Choice Tickets.)
Cymerman believed Recruiting for Good could have a particularly meaningful impact on Santa Monica youth, so he widened the scope of his company by creating a series of writing contests and reaching out to Olympic High School.
“They probably get more business from the cops than from anyone else,” Cymerman said of the Ocean Park Boulevard campus, where some 140 students who are behind on credits pursue diplomas with personalized instruction and counseling. “But everyone needs a place to escape and tell their story.
McWhorter declined to elaborate on the contents of his piece, calling it “too personal,” but he spoke in general about the powerful potential of sports to promote positivity.
Asked how he became a Patriots fan, he said he didn’t even like football until watching their 2003 game against the Dallas Cowboys.
“I said, ‘The team that wins, I’ll be a fan,'” McWhorter recalled. “And I’ve been a fan ever since.”
He followed along with heightened interest as New England charted its course through the playoffs, clipping the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round and clobbering the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game to advance to the Super Bowl for the third time in eight seasons.
Likewise, McWhorter’s teachers have monitored his progress as a creative writer.
Susanne Liaw, his English instructor, said he is warm-hearted and always willing to participate and support his classmates.
“He has a really interesting perspective,” she said. “He’s been through a lot … Kids will share writing, and he’ll always be the kid who you can count on to say something positive about another student.”
Craig Bergman, who teaches creative expression at Olympic once a week, said McWhorter has been willing to try new approaches and has made noticeable strides as a writer.
For the recent competition, with just 30 minutes to craft a story related to sports, McWhorter delivered like Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in crunch time.
“Over the course of teaching the kids, I always tell them that words from the heart penetrate the heart,” said Bergman, one of the three judges in Cymerman’s contest. “I read all these essays, and it was clear that (McWhorter’s) was authentic and real. You could hear his voice in the piece.”
And at the Super Bowl, too.
Contact Jeff Goodman by phone at 310-573-8351, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter.