Wiedmer: Kids & Pros about much more than football

Wiedmer: Kids & Pros about much more than football

July 17th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

One-hundred and sixty miles to the southwest, at the Southeastern Conference's annual football media event, they've spent much of this week discussing and dissecting the schools every young player reportedly wants to play for. At least almost every young player.

"I like Oregon," said 12-year-old D.J Stoudemire on Tuesday during a break in the Kids & Pros clinic at Finley Stadium. "I like their uniforms."

But no matter which school's uniform today's youth leaguers ultimately hope to wear in college, they need to learn a few things before they get there. Fundamentals. The importance of academics. Discipline. Nutrition. Player safety. More fundamentals.

Which is exactly what the Kids & Pros Clinic has been teaching Chattanooga area youngsters for five straight summers, never more so than this year, when large financial gifts from Kia of Chattanooga and the YMCA made the three-day event at Finley absolutely free for the first time ever.

In fact, so many kids and their parents registered so quickly that the clinic's public relations staff asked this newspaper not to publicize it beforehand because enrollment had already reached its limit of 400 boys and girls more than a week before it began.

And why wouldn't it? As former Atlanta Falcons defensive back great Bobby Butler told the participants earlier this week: "Our goal is to teach you basic fundamentals. We run the same drills that the (NFL's) Atlanta Falcons and Tennessee Titans do. If you have sound fundamentals, you have a great chance to succeed in this sport."

Originally the brainchild of former Falcons linebacker Buddy Curry, Kids & Pros has helped coach more than half a million young people ages 7 to 13 in its 12 years of existence.

Now tied to the NFL, its newest focus has been on tackling techniques, its "Heads Up" crusade determined to teach young players the proper way to tackle as a way to lessen the threat of head, neck and spine injuries, especially concussions.

"We have to change a culture that's pretty much all we've ever known," Curry said last month during a one-day clinic at Finley. "No more tackling with the head, no more leading with the helmet. We don't want you to quit playing hard or aggressive. It's still football. But now we want you to lead with your shoulder when you go in to make a tackle."

And if that was all that was taught, football would be the better for it.

But as young Stoudemire noted while wearing a pair of Oregon-like neon yellow shorts, "You have to have good grades to play college football. Schoolwork is one of the most important things about football."

Those are the words that bring a smile to the face of grandmother Tina Willis, who discovered the clinic online, then promptly registered her 9-year-old grandson Jaedan Diaz to attend during his visit from Long Island this week.

"A lot of these [counselors] have rags-to-riches stories," she said. "I like that. These kids need to listen to that. They need to know what they can accomplish if they have a goal and work hard to achieve it."

Only one day into the camp, young Diaz, who actually lists the Titans as his favorite NFL team, seemed to be getting the message.

"[I've learned] a lot," he said. "Like how to get into football position. And do well in school."

There have been few better rags-to-riches stories among Chattanooga athletes than Terdell Sands, the former Howard High School player who originally signed with Tennessee, wound up at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and went on to play eight full seasons in the NFL, most of them with the Oakland Raiders.

Now young Stoudemire's coach on the Tyner Raiders, Sands said of Kids & Pros: "We're under attack about the safety of our sport like never before. We need to teach these kids the right way to play, the basic fundamentals. A lot of times it's doing the little things right that help you succeed."

There is success in football and success in life. Curry's goal is for Kids & Pros to teach both.

"I've learned about a lot more than football," said 13-year-old Darren Kinamore, a rising eighth grader at East Lake Academy. "They teach us responsibility. They talk to us about school. I've learned respect and how to hustle. I've learned a lot of different things."

It takes a lot of different voices to teach such things. UTC head football coach Russ Huesman and much of his staff have helped every summer. So has former NFL great Gerald Riggs, who was inducted into the Falcons' Ring of Honor last season.

And working with 7- to 13-year-olds can be more challenging than one might think. Not once in his 12 seasons with the Falcons did Butler ever suffer a cut severe enough to require stitches. But during last year's camp at Finley, Butler butted heads with a camper hard enough during a drill to open a cut near his eyes.

"First time in my life I'd ever had stitches," he said on Tuesday. "I'd never really been cut before."

But he came back this year, as did former Hixson High and UTC player Charles Mitchell, who's now an assistant principal at Brainerd High.

"We're teaching football," he said. "But we're really planting seeds of hope. We're teaching life skills. I look out at these kids and I see Hispanics, blacks, whites, public school kids, private school kids. To me, the greatest thing about participating in sports is that it can curb drugs, gang violence, kids dropping out of school, so many things. That's really why we're all here. We're here to help kids."

Even those drawn to the Oregon Ducks because of their obnoxious uniforms.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com