Although exhausted after her graveyard shift, Judy Jefferson was determined to attend the closing ceremonies of the NFL Impact Program at USC.
“Sure I’m tired, but how could I miss this?” Jefferson said. “I’m here to support my son,” she said of 11-year-old Joseph Jefferson, an Audubon Middle School seventh grader.
Joseph was one of nearly 100 youths participating in a pilot program sponsored by USC College’s Joint Educational Project and the National Football League.
The three-week day camp for inner-city youths combined lessons in character building, academics and football. It ended July 28 in a ceremony that included awards, prizes and a visit from USC football coach Pete Carroll.
“You kids are real special,” said Carroll, who also had given a pep talk to the students earlier in the camp. “You’ve made it through this program. You’re kind of like Trojans now. You’re in our blood.”
Later, Carroll said he hoped that the USC pilot program was only the beginning.
“I’m sure that the NFL will implement this throughout the country,” Carroll said. “It’s just too valuable a program.”
Riki Ellison, USC College alumnus and former San Francisco 49er linebacker who organized the camp with JEP, said he envisioned expanding eventually to all 32 NFL-affiliated cities.
“This went beyond my expectations,” Ellison said. “The boys were engaged. We hope to double our efforts here at USC next summer.”
During the ceremony, Ellison encouraged the youths to be dream-makers.
“Make your dreams come true,” Ellison urged. “Make society a better place.”
USC was an ideal choice for the pilot program, Ellison said, because of its expansive community-service infrastructure. For example, the USC Educational Opportunity Programs Center identifies local, low-income, minority youths who are prospective college candidates. In its USC Talent Search program, these students are tracked from sixth grade through high school.
“They work with counselors and advisers who get them ready to apply to college,” said Oscar Cobian, EOPC director. “The good thing about this NFL program is that we’ll be able to work with most of these middle school students for another three or four years.”
Most students who participated in the NFL program were identified through USC Talent Search — but not all.
Wayne Lewis, an Audubon teacher, contacted JEP when he learned about the camp and “begged his school in,” he said. The school underwent a tragedy last year when 13-year-old Devin Brown was gunned down by a police officer. Lewis believed the program would instill confidence in students shattered by the death.
It seemed to be the case with Judy Jefferson’s son, Joseph, who now has his life mapped out.
“I’m probably going to go into the NFL,” Joseph said. “Then I’ll retire from the NFL and become a police officer.”
Cornell Ward, head coach at Los Angeles Southwest College and regional director of the NFL’s Junior Player Development program, instructed the youths on the field. Ward, one of several participating coaches, said he witnessed a tremendous turnaround in the students, who each day studied in the classroom before playing football.
"It was a testament to the great job the teachers were doing in the classroom,” Ward said. “One student who didn’t follow instructions in his classroom wasn’t allowed to play football. It was a real awakening for him.”
Brothers Jesus Garcia, 13, and Hulices Garcia, 12, said they were surprised at the emphasis on academics.
“Coming here really opens your eyes,” said Jesus, who won Most Valuable Player in his class. “Playing football is not just all the glory that you see on TV. It’s work, study, study, work, study, study.
“I learned how to set short-term as well as long-term goals,” he continued. “Short term, I want to go to high school and finish high school. Long term, I want to get a college education.”
Tammara Anderson, JEP executive director, counted as one of the highlights the inspirational speeches by former NFL players.
“The guest speakers really hit home about how important it is to take your studies seriously,” Anderson said, while she and program manager Denise Woods gift-wrapped the duffle bags, T-shirts and shorts that the students received during the closing ceremony.
“One talked about how he was cut [from a pro team], but he didn’t have his bachelor’s degree,” she said. “He had nothing to fall back on. He told the students that they can take away your privilege to play football. But no one can take away your education.”
“They started out wearing a façade, acting tougher than they really were,” Woods said. “They ended up loosening up and just being kids.”