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MIKE DOWNEY

Then the Big Bear Said to All the Baby Bears . . .

July 31, 1994|MIKE DOWNEY

Chapter 1: "It was the time of year when baseball season came around. There was a team of boys who were the best in town. There was 'Big Hands Willie' and 'String Bean Joe,' a short guy named 'Stretch' and a tall guy named 'Mo.' "

So begins the charmingly illustrated children's story, "Home Run Pete," part of a four-book series for kids 5 to 9, also now available on audio cassette with narration by the author.

The books, which also include "The Little Quarterback," "Jill and the Hill" and "Jonathan McBoo," are the creations of Shaun Gayle, a 32-year-old graduate of Ohio State with a degree in education who also has opened a preschool for children 2 to 5 in Highland Park, Ill.

The author plays football for the Chicago Bears.

You are familiar with the basketball player who does not wish to be a role model for your children. You are familiar with the baseball players who tell kids not to use drugs and then use them themselves. You are familiar with the tennis players who throw tantrums and with the football players charged with familial abuse (and worse). By now you must be in the mood to hear about somebody else.

Say hello, then, to Shaun LaNard Gayle, a defensive back who was one of the captains of the Super Bowl XX championship squad and is currently in camp preparing for his 11th season as a Bear.

"Do you know why everybody forgets I was one of our captains?" Gayle asks, cheerfully, on the phone from training camp in Wisconsin. "Because our other captains were all famous: Walter Payton, Jim McMahon, Mike Singletary, Dan Hampton and Gary Fencik. And me."

Shaun is single and has no children. One night, he was sitting at home in front of his computer, trying to take his mind off the next day's game.

On a whim, he began tapping out a football fable, "The Little Quarterback."

Gayle took the story to practice and gave it to Singletary, a popular linebacker and dedicated family man. Singletary took it home to his kids, who enjoyed it.

"You know, one of the reasons I got my degree in education was to make a commitment to children, to try to make a better environment for them," Gayle says.

"I'm not certain why doing these books occurred to me. I do feel a sense of urgency to try to improve our society for kids to some degree. It's nice that they appreciate what athletes do, but just because someone can jump high or run fast isn't reason enough. Adults have to spend time with kids, give them some kind of example."

Home Run Pete, for a very good example.

In the book, Pete, the player who plays "bigger than life--like he was 10 feet tall," comes to bat in a big game like Mighty Casey and strikes out. But his teammates persuade Pete that trying, not succeeding, is what counts.

The stories, in rhyming couplets, are accompanied by wonderful illustrations by Patrick Owsley, an artist from Southern California who works as a letterer for Malibu Comics Entertainment. The collaborators met for the first time recently at the huge American Booksellers Convention in the L.A. Convention Center.

Gayle would fax his stories to Owsley, who brought them to life.

"One of the reasons these books have taken off is because they offer reading material for boys," Gayle says. "It was brought to my attention that a lot of the children's stories seemed to be aimed toward young girls, who apparently tend to show more interest in reading as a rule. I'm not sure if this means that boys tend to go outside and play rather than read, but there really hadn't been much of a market out there for books directed toward young boys."

The books sell for $4.99 each, with a cassette package going for $7.99. Gayle says each story teaches kids about persistence, self-esteem, the healthy use of their talents and "making right choices."

The Bears' safety, who played in the 1992 Pro Bowl, has launched a preschool called "Fit By Five" in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park where the aim is to help toddlers learn through physical fitness and games.

Gayle also composed a public letter to parents:

"The influence of time is tremendous," he writes. "What is heard and seen every day will have some type of effect on our kids . . .

"What was inexcusable 10 years ago, today is commonplace--making the potential of tomorrow less than it should be . . .

"We have to talk and listen to our kids, find out if they know what racism is, explain the importance of sacrifice and compassion, teach them the meaning of perseverance and faith, give them the moral foundation that seems to be disappearing in our society. We have to provide for them what we may not have had ourselves, realizing that anything we leave to chance is a chance we cannot afford to keep taking."

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