Commentary

Athletes take life skills to heart at HSPD camp

Updated: May 7, 2009, 2:52 PM ET
By Mike Loveday | ESPNRISE.com

SPRINGDALE, Md. -- It probably was not the day most of the more than 100 high school football players envisioned when they traveled to C.H. Flowers High School for the NFL High School Player Development camp. The rain forced the event inside Monday, so the players focused on life lessons rather than football skills.

[+] EnlargeKeith Brown
Mike Loveday for ESPN RISE Keith Brown and Suitland are riding a nine-game winning streak heading into the playoffs.
It may not have been the day most expected, but it was a day many of them will not forget.

Of all the life lessons coaches talked about during the day, one appeared to have the largest impact -- decision-making.

"He [Henry Wise High defensive coordinator Kevin Wolfolk] sat us down, told us a little story and said, 'Just think it through before you make your decision. If you can live with that decision, then you're good. If not, then just think,'" said Keith Brown, a running back at Suitland (District Heights, Md.).

Wolfolk, who spent the 1992 season on the Washington Redskins' roster and spent time in NFL Europe, told the athletes about how a decision cost him early in his career.

"During my third year with Redskins I decided to go swimming the night before I was supposed to run a 40 [yard dash]. The next day, I pulled my hamstring," Wolfolk said. "The smallest decision you make can alter your path, your whole life. I missed a Super Bowl ring and a whole bunch of money because I decided to go swimming."

Brown said the camp helped him learn how to make future decisions. "A lot of kids my age are misguided," he said. "There's a lot of bad influences around us -- especially at Suitland. But we just have to stay on the right track and stay focused."

Teaching life lessons is the goal of the HSPD camps that run in 29 states.

"A small percentage of these kids will go on to play college football, and an even smaller percent will go on to play pro football, but 100 percent of them are going to live in our community," said Ron Hill, vice president of NFL operations. "If we can continue to educate the kids about their conduct and teach them work ethic through football and educate them about life skills, you'll get some policemen, firemen and doctors out of these groups. That's what we're trying to do -- we're not only trying to teach football but also build character."

The presence of NFL executives, Hill and director of Youth Tackle Football and HSPD founder Jerry Horowitz, also resonated with the athletes in attendance.

"That makes me think I need to push. If the NFL comes here to talk to you, you know you have a lot in you to push [to improve]," said Delonte White of Crossland (Temple Hills, Md.). "If they can make it to the top, you can make it to the top."

Added Brown, "That made me feel good, because it showed that people really cared about us."

The player development camps began in 1998 with the junior player development camp and branched out to high schools in 2000.

"We went to underserved areas, and we tried to give the kids an opportunity," Horowitz said. "That program [JPD] worked, and as a result I was given a wish list. I said I'd offer spring football to an area that's not capable of getting it done. I would give the kids an opportunity to attend the camp the same way kids have to go to a Penn State, Wisconsin or USC camp and spend $300. Let's offer it to these inner-city kids for free -- that's how this program came about."

In 2001, the HSPD had two sites. Last year, it had 75. This year, thanks to Army National Guard sponsorship, there are more than 100 camps. The HSPD program has set the goal of hosting a camp in all 50 states next year.

The players practiced football on Tuesday, and even though rain once again forced the event inside the Flowers High gym, the athletes in attendance chose to participate instead of staying home. For some of the athletes, that choice is what makes the difference.

"There are a lot of people here that make bad decisions. Decisions are hard. If it was easy, everybody would be making good decisions," White said. "Some of the people here may not be making good decisions, but they chose to be here to try and change themselves."

ESPN RISE encourages comments from its users. Leave a comment below. Mike Loveday covers high school sports for ESPNRISE.com. Mike can be reached at Michael.Loveday@espn.com.