It’s a catch phrase that became commonplace in sports circles when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell took over for Paul Tagliabue in 2006. During his tenure, Goodell has become known for handing down harsh punishments to players who run afoul of the law or fail to uphold the integrity of the league’s shield and bring the league shame.
The commissioner has also been proactive, instilling sound morals into young men with events such as the one which began at Oxford High School Wednesday. More than 130 players convened upon the Yellow Jackets’ campus for the NFL’s High School Player Development program.
The two-day camp, which concludes today, is put on in conjunction with the National Guard. It is the first of its kind ever held in the state. Along with providing promising players with additional training in the summer, the camp is also designed to introduce them to the National Guard and its foundational principles.
“We’re serious about instilling character in high school football players because we know it’ll carry on into college and, obviously, when they become professional football players,” said Freddie Brown, a regional director for the NFL HSPD.
He continued: “A portion of them will (go on to play professionally) and a great portion of them won’t. But what we’re trying to do is really instill a character baseline in these kids.”
The camp is patterned after an NFL offseason training activity minicamp, commonly referred to as OTAs. Players stayed overnight at Fort McClellan to mirror the experience NFL players have during their preseason training camp when they leave their mansions and room with one another in college dorms to foster camaraderie.
The camp began in the classroom with a session on various topics, including time management, stress and bullying. The U.S. Army’s values, leadership, duty, respect, selfless service, integrity and personal courage also make for good teammates and soldiers.
“Education and attitude is what we try to drive home,” Master Sgt. Robert O’Day said. “That’s what’s going to set you apart.”
O’Day is the non-commissioned officer in charge of the recruiting team which canvasses Calhoun, Cleburne, St. Clair, Cherokee and Talladega counties.
And while he said he hadn’t gotten an opportunity to talk with anyone directly about the military as a career option Wednesday, it’s a topic Oxford coach John Grass had no problem bringing up.
“It’s great for a high school kid,” Grass said. “You character education and you get to be around our National Guard folks who serve our country and are the reason we have the liberty and the freedom that we have. They also learn that it’s not a bad option. You’ve got a $51,000 scholarship if you choose to go into the National Guard.”
Brown is the head coach at Spartanburg (S.C.) High School . He played prep ball at legendary Independence High School in Charlotte before going on to play at Wofford College, where he also coached. He also coached running backs for the Carolina Panthers under George Seifert.
He began the day delivering a stirring testimony during which he detailed his path to success despite growing up in a crime-infested neighborhood, losing his mother at a young age and not having his father around.
“Football and football coaches saved me,” he said. “But it was the ones that gave me character education that saved me, not the ones that just taught me how to play football. I didn’t need them to teach me how to play football. I was pretty good at that anyway.”
It’s a message that wasn’t taken lightly by camp attendees.
Oxford defensive lineman Trent Simpson owns scholarship offers from the likes of Mississippi State, Arkansas State, Jacksonville State, and Idaho State, yet the talk still resonated with him.
“He told us that .008 percent of all the kids that play high school football will play in the NFL,” Simpson said. “You need to have another plan in case it doesn’t work out because more than likely it’s not going to work out.”
Nick Birdsong covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575. Follow him on Twitter @birds_word.