Eric Byrnes spent 11 years in the Major Leagues as an outfielder. He was known as one of the more energetic players in the game. So when his playing career ended Byrnes needed a way to stay active.
His next passion came about the way so many life-changing endeavors do.
“On a dare I got challenged to go do a sprint triathlon. I absolutely got my butt kicked and loved every single minute of it,” says Byrnes.
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That sprint triathlon morphed in Ironman triathlons and other endurance races. Then one day Byrnes and his wife were looking for a school for their three children.
“We couldn’t find a public school with everyday P.E.,” said Byrnes. “As a kid who grew up full-blown ADHD (physical education class) I knew was my outlet. This isn’t just a physical thing it’s really what it does for the mind.”
Multiple studies have shown that kids … and adults, as the writer of this story can attest … with ADHD benefit psychologically from even moderate daily exercise.
“Think of exercise as medication,” said John Ratey, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in a paper for Additude Magazine. “Exercise turns on the attention system. On a practical level, it causes kids to be less impulsive, which makes them more primed to learn.”
So Eric and his wife decided they needed to do something to help get kids moving again.
“We sort of went on this crusade and this mission. Look, let’s not just think about ourselves or our kids,” says Byrnes. “Let’s think about other kids and other people out there that aren’t getting their rightful opportunity to exercise and get outside and play.”
They used his background of baseball and endurance sports to hatch a plan.
“This sort of wacky adventure to go across the country and basically go into ballparks and use that platform to hand out checks to different local youth activity organizations of the cities that we would go in to,” says Byrnes.
Eric figured, if he’s going to ask kids to get moving he’d better be moving himself. Byrnes did a triathlon across America, starting with a 7-mile swim from AT&T Park in San Francisco across the Bay to Oakland. From there Byrnes biked more than 2,400 miles to Chicago then ran more than 900 miles to New York.
Along the way he handed out checks from donations made to the Let Them Play Foundation, which has given money to 49 different youth organizations in the United States so far. Byrnes knows, in the quest for higher test scores, many schools have lost the funding for regular P.E. courses.
“The first things to go are P.E., art, and music. If you were to tell me if there are three things that all of our kids need that will benefit them for the rest of their lives it’s P.E., art and music,” says Byrnes.
So most of the donations from the Let Them Play Foundation (www.letthemplayfoundation.org) go to after-school organizations.
“We have to provide after-school youth activity opportunities for all kids,” says Byrnes. “It’s not necessarily back to the physical thing. It’s what it does for kids mentally. Quite honestly they need to get outside and they need to get playing and we need to help them.”
That’s one of the reasons a documentary was made about the nation-crossing triathlon. You can watch it at www.letthemplayfilm.com for a $10 dollar donation and if you wonder where the money goes … it goes straight to the youth of America.
In December, Byrnes came to a realization that would upset most people.
“We were broke,” said Byrnes. “And I was like, I want to be broke. That’s the idea and the point of this. Every dollar that we’ve raised, we’re such a small 501-©(3) we just hand it back out. We have no one on payroll and it’s been so cool to see what sort of impact we’re able to have at the grassroots level.”
Now it is a bit ironic to be doing a story about getting kids outside and moving during the coronavirus pandemic. But instead of awful timing, Byrnes sees it as an opportunity. For every stream of the documentary a dollar will be donated to the Let Them Play COVID-19 Response Fund to help support children of essential workers. Plus being cooped up inside might even help the exercise cause.
“You lock someone inside and people realize what getting outside and what exercise actually does for them.”