PAJARO, Calif. — When Teddy Herrera finished an assembly at Pajaro Middle School, a school administrator had to work really hard to get students to back away from Herrera so a TV reporter could set up a camera tripod.
"The girls are getting Teddy's autograph," one boy shouted to his friends as he ran to see the commotion.
Who the heck is Teddy Herrera, who can get 400 middle schoolers to listen and get inspired?
Herrera, 25, of Elk Grove, Calif., explained his story while showing slides from his bike ride across America last year with his new venture, Across America for Childhood Obesity. He finished the 11,000-mile, nine-month ride in March, after stops at more than 100 schools.
His second cross-country ride began last week, with a stop at the Pajaro school by invitation of a teacher.
Using some rousing techniques and infectious dynamism, Herrera relayed his story. He told the middle schoolers that he walked into the house on Sept. 11, 2007, and saw his dad sitting on the couch.
He said that never happened with his father because his father was always working, if not at a business he started at age 18, then in the yard.
He said his dad, who was 47, made a sound similar to a snore, leaned his head back and died of a heart attack. A photograph of his dad was on the auditorium screen at that point; he looked fit and strong.
"He had an unhealthy heart because of the things he ate and because of his lack of regular exercise," Herrera told the kids.
More impetus came later, when Herrera visited his grandmother's house on a sunny day and found that his 12-year-old twin cousins wouldn't go outside because they were spending hours playing video games, he said.
He said he thought there was nothing he could do, but he later decided to prove that one person could make a difference.
Herrera said his dad had told him he could be whatever he wanted to be, and he had aimed for a career in professional baseball and a mariachi band called Los Jalapeños. Then he poked a bit of fun at himself because, instead, he ended up wearing spandex in front of people.
"You can't be whatever you want," he said. "But you will be whatever you decide to be."
Drawing from his long ride, he said he nearly turned back while heading over the Sierra Nevada mountains. He lost his tent in a storm while camping behind a gas station with only $10 in his pocket, and he later contracted pneumonia during an ice storm in Dallas. But he made it.
He advised the students to set daily goals they can achieve, believe in themselves and do it. He had them hold out their hands and imagine a delete button in the center that they could hit to discard discouraging comments. He said his mom had not encouraged him, but she had questioned whether he was sure he really wanted to embark on that ride.
He said his cousins called when he was in Kansas and said they were riding bikes daily and mapping the miles as if they were with him. They made Boston after four months, he said, adding later that some students track progress that way, too.
After the assembly, he said, smiling widely, that it's those he meets at schools who make it all worthwhile.
"People ask me what it's like to inspire kids, but I'm inspired by people every day," he said. "Otherwise, why did I ride? The people at schools fuel me."
He smiled again and said he "found out that a lot of people take that trip," riding across country, but that people seem to appreciate that he shares his story with children.
That seemed the case with Pajaro eighth-graders Marcos Escobar and Elias Limon, who both said it was cool that Herrera believed so strongly in himself, and Juan Flores, who pledged to set daily goals to improve his soccer game.
Jackie Lopez said she liked everything about it. Added Lizzeth Cosio, "What he is doing is very nice for all the kids."