Sitting on the steps of the high school where he began to fashion his own career in football, Keion Carpenter paused to remember the phone calls he got last fall from the high school students looking to follow his path from inner-city Baltimore to NFL glory.
The questions the former Woodlawn High School star answered weren't about the nuances of a zone blitz. They didn't focus on offseason conditioning or film study. In fact, the questions were more about the SAT than they were the X's and O's.
"'Coach, I just got this letter from this school and this school, what should I do?'" Carpenter recalls being asked. "That means their mind is on the next level. And that's what we want to do. We want to prepare these kids for the next level."
On Monday, Carpenter will team up with former Mount Hebron star and current Buffalo Bills defensive end Aaron Maybin for the second annual Commitment 4 Change Summer Football Camp, a nonprofit initiative designed to arm aspiring football stars with the tools they need to succeed in the classroom and on the field.
The camp, which runs through the week at Woodlawn, is Carpenter's thank-you to the community that cared for and supported him as he navigated his way off the streets and into a seven-year career as a safety with the Bills and the Atlanta Falcons.
"I owe it to the people who helped me in my life to reach back and give these kids the opportunity," said Carpenter, 32, who spends much of his time in Georgia with his family. "It's been in my heart since I can remember. I just never had the resources to do that, but now God has allowed and provided me the platform."
Football, Carpenter said, isn't what holds back much of the city's talented youth from playing in college and beyond. Instead, it's the peripheral stuff — grades, friends, expectations — that can shelve a promising career before it ever gets a chance to flourish.
It's no surprise then that Carpenter's camp offers daily lectures on matters such as keeping good company in between hours out on the field refining football's finer points.
"I've been involved and a part of a lot of football camps in my life, and I've walked away shaking my head a lot of times like, 'Man, what am I getting out of this?' So, if I'm feeling that way as a grown-up, I can just imagine how the kids feel," Carpenter said.
"My thing was, if I wanted to do a camp, it had to be everything involved, not just football," he said. "In life, the reality is, everybody's not going to be an NFL player or an NBA player or an MLB player. But at the end of the day, every kid has the right to go to college and be successful."
Maybin, 22, who started working on the camp with Carpenter three months ago, said: "The fact of the matter is, without college you can't even make it to the NFL. "It used to be that you can go straight from high school to the NBA, but you can't even do that anymore. The biggest thing that we try to hammer in is, regardless of how talented you think you are, if you can't get to college, you can't get anywhere."
While several future Division I athletes will attend the camp at Woodlawn, Carpenter says the experience transcends the game of football. He knows that some of his campers this week won't get the chance to play the sport beyond high school, and he feels that their future is partly in his hands.
Even if a playing career is out of the question, Carpenter said, college shouldn't be.
"Are we going to save everybody? No. But all we need is one. All we need is two. That keeps us going. That keeps us encouraged to keep fighting," Carpenter said. "Nobody gave up on me, nobody gave up on Aaron, and we're not going to give up on these kids."