NEAR WEST SIDE — Chicago Bears linebacker Sam Acho said he never really planned to play football professionally.
He was more interested in math.
The Texas native encouraged Smyth Elementary students to find a balance between their studies and an active lifestyle Tuesday as the Bears presented a $10,000 NFL Hometown Grant for the school's nutrition and physical activity programs.
"People are going to try and tell you you're this or you're that, and you can't be anything more. 'You grew up in this neighborhood, so you can't get out of this neighborhood,' " Acho told the students. "I'm going to tell you that's not true. Those are bald-faced lies."
Acho, who has been ranked one of the smartest athletes in sports, graduated with a double major in the business honors program at the University of Texas, which he attended on a full-ride football scholarship.
Smyth middle school students participated in football drills and played games with Bears linebacker Sam Acho and mascot Staley Da Bear at the end of the assembly Tuesday. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]
After winning the William V. Campbell Trophy — given to college football's top scholar-athlete — Acho was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals and played for four years before joining the Bears in 2015.
"People I thought were friends of mine told me I was never going to play in the NFL or I couldn't be in the business honors program," Acho said. "But look at me now."
For Smyth Principal Ronald Whitmore, it was a chance for students to see a role model like Acho on a more human level.
Smyth Principal Ronald Whitmore (bottom left), Network 6 Chief Brian Metcalf (bottom right) and Chicago Bears linebacker Sam Acho (top right) pose with a check to the school from the Chicago Bears. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]
"He became not just an exceptional football player, but he became a person that connected to our students from a sense of reality around goal-setting and creating a vision for one's self," Whitmore said. "The kids were looking at me like, 'This is what you tell us all the time,' but to hear it from a professional athlete made it even more exciting."
Together with the National Dairy Council, the NFL launched the "Fuel Up to Play 60" program in 2010 as a way to encourage schools to offer more nutritious lunches, in-class physical activity breaks and more playground equipment.
A Smyth student grins as Bears linebacker Sam Acho signs her T-shirt Tuesday. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]
Since then, 14 Chicago Public Schools have received funding, along with dozens of other schools in Illinois.
Smyth Elementary, 1059 W. 13th St., is an international baccalaureate school known for a great school culture and a focus on personalized learning to allow students more flexibility in how they learn, Whitmore said.
In addition to the Bears grant, Smyth also received 30 adjustable standing desks from Ergotron Inc. in keeping with that mission. That added component, along with the school's beehive, greenhouse and farmer's market, create a "cyclical environment around health, nutrition and exercise," Whitmore said.
"Some may work better sitting on a couch; some may work better standing," he said. "We want to create a contemporary environment where we think about agency, authority and identity [of the students]."