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Push-ups lead to scholarships, arena tour for local students

by Kyle Morrison /

High School Scholarship Tour

High School Scholarship Tour

President and CEO Matt Caldwell gives four high school graduates a tour of BB&T Center and a $1,000 scholarship to the school of their choice

  • 01:25 •

The challenge went out to more than 100 students. Four brave souls answered the call.

The prize? An additional $1,000 scholarship. The venue? South Florida Ford's Salute to Education banquet. The attire? Dress clothes.

This certainly wasn't what the 100-plus area students were expecting from their keynote speaker. But someone told Panthers President Matthew Caldwell to be himself up there. When he's himself, he's issuing spontaneous push-up challenges.

And thus, the challenge went out: any student to beat Caldwell in a push-up challenge would get some important financial help to further their education. But it takes guts to take on a former Army captain in a battle of stamina. Four students tried, one succeeded, but their show of spirit led to some extra generosity from Caldwell on behalf of the Panthers; so he gave all four the scholarship money.

Actually, he gave them a bit more than that.

The four students - Renaldo Flowers, David Fernandez, Ian Tyrell and Nicholas Matese - were invited to the BB&T Center to collect their prizes, so they came by on Tuesday to reunite with Caldwell and tour the building. And thus began a whirlwind afternoon highlighted by a locker room tour guided by former Cats winger Shawn Thornton.

"I expected to get a check in the mail," said Matese. "I didn't expect to get it hand-delivered at the Panthers' arena."

Matese didn't believe it when he heard Caldwell's challenge - and he was worried, having heard Caldwell talk about his Army background - but he took a chance. For him, the scholarship will help pay for his aviation courses at the Florida Institute of Technology. For Fernandez, his money will go towards his studies at the Ivy League's University of Pennsylvania. Flowers is set to attend Florida A&M to study Psychology, and Tyrell is on his way up to Tallahassee, to study at Florida State University. The scholarship will lessen the financial burden on all four.

"It's very important, I'm very grateful," said Tyrell. "I work really hard at school, and it's good to see everything paying off in the long run."

South Florida Ford has been a longtime partner of the Florida Panthers, and the two organizations often come together to have an impact on the community. This relationship - and the shared interest of education in the South Florida community - led to Caldwell's involvement in their Salute to Education event. When a representative from South Florida Ford made a joke about Caldwell doing push-ups during his speech, the light bulb came on, and the stage was set.

"The place erupted," said Caldwell. "These four young gentlemen came up and I was really impressed with their courage and bravery.

"I still cranked out like 80 [push-ups], by the way."

He took on the planning of Tuesday's visit with that same unbridled enthusiasm. He roped in Thornton, showed off everything from the player gym to the training and equipment rooms, had someone ring the sales floor bell to congratulate the students and had a giant check made up so the students could have an Instagram-worthy memento of their day at the arena.

"It's great to give them money," he said, "but instead of just sending them checks, we wanted to bring them in, welcome them to the family."

A speech turned into a push-up contest. A $1,000 prize turned into $4,000. That prize turned into a visit and a tour. And that tour turned into a grand gesture, welcoming the students into the Panthers family.

"I hesitated for a second, I said 'I might as well, what the heck?'" said Fernandez. "You've just got to take chances and see what happens."

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