Story and photos by Robert T. Balint
This past Saturday morning, dozens of aspiring athletes went through a series of stretches to get ready for a day of activity at Arizona State’s practice football fields. These were not Sun Devils, however, but participants of the Future for KIDS Youth Sports & Fitness Camp.
FutureForKIDS was started by its founder and president, Rodney Smith, in 1991. Smith had benefited from a mentor in his childhood, and wanted to extend those same benefits to kids as an adult. The non-profit aims to make differences in the lives of at-risk children, ages 8-14, of the Phoenix metro area. Through athletic camps, and, since 2002, academic mentorships, the volunteers of FutureForKIDS have reached over 129,000 children. At-risk kids’ chances of success are threatened by circumstances such as underfunded schools, youth crime, etc.
The program staff had arranged a series of stations all around the field: baseball tees, cones for soccer drills, and plenty of space for football passing, catching, and running drills. Before the kids were divided up into groups for the stations, however, two visitors stopped by to say hello: Dennis Erickson, head coach of the ASU football team, and the Phoenix Suns Gorilla. Erickson was slightly more verbose than the simian visitor, and talked to the kids about accountability and the importance of success in the classroom.
“The more you study, the more successful you are in school, the more successful you’re going to be at everything that you do in your life,” the head coach said. “I got 85 football players on my football team at Arizona State, and we ask them to do a lot of different things. We ask them to be accountable in all aspects of their life.
“Winning is one thing, [but] being successful in life and in school is the most important thing.”
After Erickson’s remarks, and a good bit of clowning from the Gorilla, the kids hit the stations. A host of retired professional players, coaches and volunteers ran each location, teaching basic skills such as a quarterback’s drop-step, kicking and dribbling a soccer ball, and the proper mechanics of a baseball swing. One station featured relay races that included pushups, agility drills, and sprints in the challenges.
For Diego Valdez, 8, from Phoenix, the football and soccer stations were his favorite. He hopes to play football in high school, preferably at the receiver position, while a fellow group mate, Kyle Harris, 7, from Alabama, prefers playing quarterback. For Elena Geiger and Melissa Moldinari, two 11-year-olds from Phoenix, the soccer drills of dribbling around the cones and practicing footwork were highlights of the day. “It’s fun, and it’s like dancing,” Geiger said.
Derek Kennard, a retired offensive lineman who spent 10 years in the NFL, was in charge of running one of the running back and wide receiver stations. A bear of a man, Kennard helped the kids learn a football stance and how to take a handoff, and tossed up passes for the receivers. He gave extra attention to both the children who were having trouble, and the athletes of the group who were pulling down one-handed highlight-reel catches.
For Kennard, “Teaching something new for the kids, and seeing the excitement in their faces when they get it—the ‘Aha!’ moment” is the best part of the day, the coach said with a wide grin in between stations.
“To see how much confidence that gives the kids, and to cheer them on, that’s the thing. Seeing the happiness in their faces.” That’s what it’s all about.