Laying Out The Right Choices

Young Athletes Get Advice For Life Along With Training

July 03, 2009|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,

For nearly a week, dozens of Maryland youths have rubbed elbows with the pros on the football field, picked their brains and even caught a glimpse of a real Super Bowl ring.

But they also took time to talk about the challenges they face daily: choices about drugs, about girls, about school.

The 80 or so boys and young men participated in a new football camp called Commitment 4 Change, which aims to teach children from ages 8 to 17 how to better play the game - and equip them with what they need to succeed both on and off the field.

The five-day camp, which included students from throughout the Baltimore area and beyond, was organized by retired Atlanta Falcon Keion Carpenter and former Green Bay Packer Antonio Freeman, both Baltimore natives. A number of other professional athletes and high school coaches appeared throughout the week, armed with advice and plenty of shouts to go around during practice.

"They're learning life lessons that are going to help them in any walk of life," Carpenter, who co-hosted the event with Towson University, said of the students.

Before setting foot on the field, the young athletes filed into the student union building at Towson, where the camp took place this week, for morning and afternoon sessions on "real-life issues" such as drugs, gang and domestic violence, and SAT and college preparation. The set-up, Carpenter and others said, mirrored the style of the NFL, with morning meetings before field practice. And the setting, on a college campus, exposed the youths to what lies beyond grade school, Carpenter said.

"We want to give these guys a head start," said Freeman, a graduate of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, who brought his Super Bowl XXXI ring for the kids to see. "With a good foundation, anything's possible."

Having that foundation laid by men who have achieved success certainly helps, several of the athletes said.

"They came from the same type of environment, or worse, that we came from," said Marcus Dudley, a rising senior at Woodlawn High, Carpenter's alma mater, in Baltimore County. "Just seeing them ... you get a goal set in your mind."

Sammie McKay, who will be a senior at the Lake Clifton high school campus in Baltimore this fall, said hearing their stories and how they rose up to where they are inspired him. He also appreciated the discussion sessions, during which the camp's leaders have taught them "how not to be like the ones ... making dumb decisions." Having gotten into trouble a couple of times for fighting while trying to protect his younger brother, he said, he's learned that he needs to try talking it out "before I just throw a punch."

During one Q&A session, the former and current professional athletes, along with school coaches, were hammering home lessons while answering questions ranging from what an NFL practice is like to how they decided where to go to college.

Fewer than 1 percent of college players make it into the NFL, they said - so maybe one student among the dozens at the camp might, said Tommy Polley, a former Baltimore Raven who graduated from Dunbar High in Baltimore. "But all of y'all in here could get a college scholarship."

At one point, Carpenter picked up a bag. He asked: If they were told that there was $100,000 inside that they could have if they went to school and got good grades, "how many of you would do that?"

Every hand shot up.

"That's all a college scholarship is, y'all," he said. "Why is it so hard for us to do what we're supposed to do? ... You guys control your own destiny."

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