Although standing in front of a chalkboard, former National Football League player Reggie Grant sounded as if posed in front of a scoreboard, issuing a command on a playing field.
“To make it into the NFL, you have to be the best of the best,” the former cornerback for the New York Jets said in a booming voice. "Not just in football, but in academics, in character. You have to have the heart."
Grant was speaking to middle school students in the NFL Impact Program, a day camp held at USC through July 28. The pilot program marks the first that the NFL has worked with a university to offer a summer camp that combines lessons in character building, academics and football.
“We’re giving young men, disadvantaged young men, a shot at academia,” said Riki Ellison, USC College alumnus and former San Francisco 49er linebacker, who organized the program with the College’s Joint Educational Project. “We reward them with the flash of the NFL and good food every day. I know that combination works.”
Denise Woods, the program manager and USC alumna, said she wanted to help the sixth, seventh and eighth-graders grow up to be men “who are about something.”
“We want them to succeed,” Woods said. “It’s a lot of hard work and not a piece of cake. There’s a lot more to it than football. But the draw here is football.”
Monday through Friday, 100 middle school students from throughout Los Angeles Unified School District arrive on campus to read, write, listen to speakers about career choices, and develop people skills. They go on field trips.
But the big payoff comes when they head to Cromwell Field, where experts including a few former NFL players such as Grant coach them in passing, overhead kicks and tackling.
“So, does anyone here think they’re going to be a pro player?” Grant asked his class. Grant, now a South Gate High School English teacher, was one of several local instructors and coaches recruited for the program.
Thirteen-year-old Antonio Loggins raised his hand and matter-of-factly declared: “I’m gonna be a pro.” When Grant asked students to jot down what they hoped to learn, Antonio wrote, "I will learn to respect myself and others, even my coach and teachers."
For Antonio, running up against odds strengthens his steely determination.
It isn’t just the teenager’s imposing frame that gives him confidence. Echoing many students in the program, the eighth grader at Audubon Middle School has overcome plenty of adversity in his short life.
Antonio was seven when his grandparents, who were raising him, died. His aunt, Rita Loggins, a single mother with three children, took in Antonio and his older sister. But the family has struggled. Rita Loggins worries about Antonio getting caught up in neighborhood violence.
The program seemed an enriching way for Antonio to spend part of his summer, she said.
“I’m loving it,” Rita Loggins said. “I’ve never seen Antonio so excited about going to school.”
Rita Loggins said she had a heart-to-heart talk with her nephew, after Antonio’s schoolmate, 13-year-old Devin Brown, was gunned down by a police officer last year, a death that sparked public outcry.
“This program gives Antonio focus,” she said. “And it gives him more strong male role models.”
Wayne Lewis, a teacher at Audubon, recalled hearing about the summer camp and immediately got on the phone. He was told that the schools had already been chosen.
Lewis refused to take no for an answer.
“I begged my school into this program,” Lewis said. “My school is in a heavy gang area. Forty percent of our kids are in foster homes. Most of the rest are being raised by single moms who are on assistance.”
Devin Brown was in Lewis’ class. Lewis said his students were disturbed by the child’s tragic death.
“The kids are building character here,” Lewis said. “We’re using football as a vehicle to get them involved in learning.”
Ellison designed the program after a similar one he launched at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., the school immortalized in the 2000 Denzel Washington film, “Remember the Titans.”
“I saw the need for this to go on a national scale. And it was natural for me to come to USC,” said Ellison, who graduated in 1982 with a bachelor’s in international relations. “I love this school and I had an opportunity to give back.”
Ellison envisions expanding the program to 36 cities nationwide. He will speak to students later in the program.
“I lived a dream,” Ellison said. “I made a lot of money and bought a beautiful home. But none of that truly satisfies me. I believe in doing good things. It gives me a purpose in life.”
Back at USC, students excitedly lined up to be fitted for football uniforms, donated by the NFL’s Junior Player Development program.
Cornell Ward, head coach at Los Angeles Southwest College and regional director of the JPD program, was one of several officials who busily helped students lace the front of their shoulder pads and adjust their facemasks.
“I was one of these kids from the neighborhood,” Ward said. “I lived on the street for three or four years. I can’t stand by and do nothing.”
College graduate student Hiram Sims, 22, felt the same.
“The boys are really motivated by sports and competition,” said Sims, president of 100 Black Men of USC. “I love working with them.”
After practicing football in full gear, Antonio was sweating profusely.
“Man, it’s hot,” the teen said, running in place and dropping to the ground.
“Dream big, play big,” Grant bellowed. “That’s what it’s about. Big dreams.”