July 20, 2013

Learning lessons

Former pros adding life experiences for next-gen campers

Devin Golden

— The former NFL players at Eric Matthews’ E-Matt NFL Youth Camp at Northwest Whitfield High School said the kids at the camp were lucky.

Those retired players didn’t have this type of experience when they were the same age as the campers.

In the second day of the three-day camp, which concludes today at the high school, around 28 campers did everything from wide receiver drills to basic footwork training with the help of players who’ve been at the highest level in football. The camp is for ages 8-17 with a one-hour camp held for ages 5-7 Friday morning.

Clinton “C.J.” Jones, who played for Minnesota and San Diego, said this era for youth football players is much different than when he was still learning the ropes.

“I never had a camp until the ninth grade,” Jones said. “As for people coming down to help me? Nothing, bro. We had to do this by ourselves. My (training) cones were my shoes. I brought my tennis shoes and my cleats were in my bag and I used to bring all my friends and teammates to the field and set up drills with my tennis shoes. We didn’t have cones. My resistance training was me holding your shirt and you running. Now they have bungee cords. It’s good for them.”

Other former players agreed. Joining Matthews, who played for the Green Bay Packers, and Jones were: former University of Georgia running back Keith Henderson (Minnesota and San Francisco), Kendall Newsome (Jacksonville, Miami and Tennessee), Robert Hicks (Buffalo) and Todd Burks (Chicago). Leonard Bryant played at the University of Indiana.

“The first pro I met was when I was in college,” Hicks said. “I never got the chance to meet or talk or have any interaction with one before. It helps in a lot of ways. The kids can be around former NFL guys, ask them questions, build a relationship with us. It’s a beautiful thing. We all have kids now, so we understand what they’re asking. It’s a good feel and fit for us.”

And the kids see potential for rewards, too. Jasper Pierce, 14, is entering his freshman year at North Murray High School. He’s a wide receiver and cornerback but said it’s good to have versatility and learn numerous positions.

In the morning, the campers practiced footwork and mobility. In the afternoon, there were six stations — wide receiver, quarterback, linemen, running back, secondary and linebacker — and each camper rotated through each station for a 10-minute session.

“It gives me more of an opportunity to get better before the season,” Pierce said.

Dominique Sistrunk, 12, who is entering seventh grade at New Hope Middle, is a running back for the school’s team. He said a big plus is working on mechanics.

“Just getting the mental basics right,” Sistrunk said. “Like what we did here (at the linebacker station), reading the quarterback instead of anticipating or jumping.”

And for the younger kids, it was more about learning what positions they enjoy. Gavyn Stanley, 8, is a Westwood Elementary student. He said his favorite stations were defensive back, offensive line and wide receiver.

“I’m learning how to catch and if you’re fixing to fall, put your hand out to push yourself back up,” Stanley said.

Matthews said the camp will give kids “one foot forward” in their progression as football players, but today’s era also hinders kids from developing the same way he and some of the other former players did.

“You see, we played all the time,” Matthews said. “We stayed outside. So our mobile skills came from staying outside. These kids don’t stay outside, so they’ve lost a step. Their mobile skills come from the experience we’re giving them. I still think it’s evening out. We had those things just going out and playing kick ball, riding your bike, climbing trees. You learn mobile skills just going out and playing. Kids don’t do that anymore. They’re more into video games, and also in this society, you can’t let your kids go.

“It used to be on Saturdays you just went outside and played all day,” Matthews said. “Now, you can’t let your kids do that because you don’t know what is down the street. There’s so much going on so you get scared to let them go.”

Dawn and Ricky Johnson’s Tunnel Hill training facility, Athletic Edge, has partnered with Matthews and the players this week to bring a series of events, including a trip to Whitfield County’s Miracle League on Wednesday, a charity basketball game Thursday and a charity bowling night Friday.

Ricky Johnson said the most enjoyable part is watching the kids and players interact during “down time” like lunch and water breaks. Again, the retired players said that kind of experience was lacking during their childhood, so they’re happy to provide that to the next generation of possible NFL players.

“These NFL players will tell their experiences of who they went up against and who was the toughest quarterback they played against,” Ricky Johnson said. “The kids get to hear these stories. It’s amazing. Their eyes are open and mouths drop.

“That’s the most fun I think,” Johnson said.