An Otwell Middle School teacher got a big surprise Tuesday morning.
Representatives from SunTrust Bank, Symetra Financial and the Atlanta Falcons honored physical education instructor Brian Whitmer as a Symetra Hero in the Classroom.
The program recognizes 16 teachers from throughout Georgia each fall. The teachers receive donations to their schools and passes to an Atlanta Falcons game with a VIP sideline tour.
Principal Steve Miller learned Whitmer had been chosen last month,v but kept it a secret until Tuesday morning.
He called the entire eighth-grade student body into the gym for what he said would be a presentation on leadership.
Special guests quickly broke the news.
"Let me tell you the real reason you’re here today," said Matt Poe with SunTrust, explaining the Heroes in the Classroom program.
"Today we’re here to recognize one of your own from Otwell Middle School, Brian Whitmer."
Poe explained that Whitmer was nominated for the program by a former student, Lex Gillette, a world-record holder in the Paralympic long jump.
Gillette, who is blind, did not attend the presentation, but Poe read a portion of the nomination letter he submitted.
"Coach Whitmer taught me the value of believing in myself and the time he spent with me has made all the difference in my life. He literally inspired me to do great things," he read.
Whitmer said he taught Gillette from 1999 to 2003 while working in Raleigh, N.C.
Whitmer was also congratulated by Freddie the Falcon, the Atlanta Falcons’ mascot, and tight end Michael Palmer, who spoke briefly about a fifth-grade P.E. teacher who had inspired him.
"She always encouraged me to do my best," Palmer said.
Whitmer said he was surprised by the presentation.
"It was very cool," he said. "Definitely not something that happens every day."
Whitmer, who has worked at Otwell since 2004, said he would put to good use the $300 prize and $1,000 donation to the school.
"I appreciate everything and we’ll figure out a way to use this so the kids benefit," he said.
Miller, the principal, said Whitmer was deserving of the honor.
"He takes what he does very seriously and he has a special way with kids with disabilities," he said.
Whitmer’s family — wife Cheryl, daughters Keeley, 8, Allie, 5, Rylee, 3, and parents Steve and Bev Whitmer — also surprised him by attending.
He and his wife will attend the Falcons game this Sunday against the Carolina Panthers and receive a pregame sidelines tour.
"I watch the Falcons on TV, but I’m really more of a basketball guy," Whitmer joked. "Maybe I’ll learn something Sunday."