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Titans get first win of the year in rescuing local spelling bee competition

Most regional spelling bee winners receive a dictionary, maybe a trophy, and a trip to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May.

The winner of Saturday's Middle Tennessee contest? Those prizes, plus a Tennessee Titans game ball.

The Titans are rolling out the red carpet in sponsoring this year's Nashville-area competition, becoming the first pro franchise to fund a speller's trip to the national event.

In early January, The Tennessean newspaper reported that the local spelling bee had no sponsor to send a student to Washington, D.C., where the national competition is held. The Titans responded.

"Our ownership group saw it and said, 'We cannot let the spelling bee not happen. Make this happen,'" said Susanna Nickell, a community relations assistant for the Titans. "We called Scripps, and in about two or three days, we turned it around. A lot of schools didn't think there would be a sponsor."

Saturday's bee will have a sporting element to it. Cheerleaders will greet students as they arrive. The team will raffle off autographed footballs, helmets and a Marcus Mariota-signed Sports Illustrated magazine. And running back Dexter McCluster will speak to the contestants and present trophies to the winners.

And why not add a sporting feel to the event? While the physical demands are different, the dedication and mental prep required to attain that level of success isn't much different from what athletes endure.

"Spellers have their playbook, and they study and show up, and the spelling bee is like Sunday," Nickell said. "It's testing your knowledge, whether it's words or a playbook."

The competition will be held in the West Club of the Titans' Nissan Stadium. Sponsorship costs between $6,000 and $8,000 per speller who advances to the national competition, and about 60 Middle Tennessee students are expected to compete on Saturday.

The team's contract to run the bee is for one year, but Nickell said the Titans plan to continue sponsorship beyond 2016.

"The Titans are clearly a high-profile community business in their region and the nation," said Paige Kimble, executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. "Their sponsorship puts the spotlight on English language learning."

Amy Goldstein, a general editor for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, finished fourth at the 1998 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Follow her @northboundlane.