Chants, cheers and the tunes behind the famous Yellow Jacket fight song could be heard from blocks away on a crystal clear June day in downtown Atlanta, pump-up music thumping in harmony. Georgia Tech football players made a grand entrance at the venue right after buses unloaded groups of eager, smiling faces.
But the excitement didn’t involve a fall Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium. In fact, the primary focus wasn’t on those linebackers and receivers, coming off their best season in years, which ended in a Orange Bowl victory.
On this hot summer day at Georgia Tech’s outdoor practice facility, attention was turned towards kids, many of whom had never even thrown a football. But they arrived well-equipped with eyes wide open and futures yet to be discovered. As the sun continued to rise, empty morning stomachs waited for a warm Chick-Fil-A chicken biscuit and energy built, soon to be spent on dancing, laughing with friends and for the first time to many, practicing football basics.
Through a collaborative effort between the Chick-Fil-A Foundation, ADDO, an Atlanta-based company that brings leadership-related conceptions to fruition, Georgia Tech athletics, and organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, ‘Fundamentals On The Field’ was born.
“The Chick-Fil-A Foundation came to ADDO saying they wanted to develop a leadership program around football players and student athletes,” said John Hightower of ADDO.
“Within ‘Fundamentals on the Field’, there are three prongs. Number one is fun; two is fundamentals. We’re showing kids an athletic fundamental, like having to tackle the proper way, and we’re also wrapping up a leadership fundamental around that.Thirdly is showing that fundamentals on the field not only applies to football players, but it’s for all the student athletes at the school. We see this as a great way to engage those student athletes as well as the campus to make a community impact.”
Passion laid a big hand on this day, as a number of former Jackets found themselves back on old stomping grounds as contributors to the event. A 2008 graduate, Gloria Cox of the Chick-Fil-A Foundation emphasized the value in devoting resources to those needing help right around the corner.
Two of those communities, Vine City and English Avenue, have long been known for racial tension, rampant drug use and high crime rates. Though revitalization efforts have been an ongoing emphasis for decades, graduation rates for both areas still waddle around fifty percent.
“A lot of colleges have communities like Vine City and English Avenue right in their backyard so our goal is to create easy opportunities for them to invite those kids in; to expose them to college and to what life might be like outside of their walls,” Cox explained.
“Chick-Fil-A really believes that we have a great opportunity to steward things right here at home. And what a shame if we neglect that focus and effort elsewhere.”
Jackets slot backs coach and football community service director, Lamar Owens, uses his devotion to serving others as a vehicle in forging a stronger bond between Georgia Tech sports and the community. After seeing this event format carried out at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, he approached Gloria Cox about bringing it to the home of the Jackets.
“My first year in this role, I really struggled getting our guys to do community service because it was all so far away so I started thinking of ways that we could have events on campus. That made it much easier for our student athletes to be involved.”
Not only does hosting events on campus mean more involvement on the part of the college-level student athletes and an easy commute for involved organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, it’s an opportunity to showcase a beautiful campus and facilities.
The purpose? Not to prod, but to demonstrate to today’s youth that they, too, have a place in college if they chose to pursue that goal.
“It helps getting these kids out here to see what it’s like to be on a college campus and just have them aspire to be here one day. I want them to walk away with being excited to be out here having fun and just wanting to be better,” said senior linebacker Tyler Marcordes.
ADDO’s John Hightower, another Tech alumnus, holds a special passion for this event.
“I was in a similar situation when I was twelve years old and did a basketball camp on Georgia Tech’s campus. It redirected my trajectory knowing that I could do something and be something of worth and it’s really cool to do this full circle and come back and see student athletes doing the same thing in working with the next generation of leaders.”
Perhaps one of those future leaders, rising sixth-grader Tamaya Palmer held a wide grin while she explained how much she enjoyed the challenge of learning to tackle and throw the football. Her other favorite part of the day was listening to speakers like former Georgia Tech quarterback Joe Hamilton.
“It’s surrounded more, it’s supported more. A lot more people are involved. When I was growing up, there were maybe a couple leaders. But now, it’s a whole culture,” said the former signal-caller.
“You’re around with the media, coaches, mentors, community service…which is huge. Each one, teach one; what I mean by that is not only that you have a whole community of helpers and leaders striving to kind of shake the whole world and mold it, but that the whole positive atmosphere around it is changing.”
Because sports often serve as a microcosm of life’s events, they can provide an impactful vehichle for teaching and inspiring. And as Hamilton alluded to, both the instructor and the pupil can benefit from the relationship.
“Sports teaches them teamwork, cooperation, sportsmanship and all of that is very important. From the perspective of the coaches, the athletes and the kids here, it’s a learning experience for all of them. A lot of kids may have been interested in football but to do it one-on-one…it may give them more of a feel above just saying hey, I want to do this,” noted Diondra Payton of the Boys and Girls Club.
But as America’s favorite game faces tough criticism in the wake of the hutly debated concussion crisis, the football aficionados on site made a stiff point of instructing campers on proper tackling techniques. An inherently physical sport lends to high risk for injury. And as youth from the lower socioeconomic classes form a large contingent of those relying on athletic ability as a means for a scholarship-assisted college education, teaching these lessons is especially important to those audiences. Coach Owens weighed in.
(Concussions in football) are a very hot topic right now. One huge point of emphasis that we have today…and that’s why the camp is called Fundamentals on the Field..is every young person here knowing how to throw and catch a football and then also knowing how to tackle properly with their face up. We have a big wobble, tackling dummy that they can all jump on and land on the big bag.”
“Football is a contact sport and if you don’t use proper technique, it can be a little dangerous. But I think coaches, parents…everybody just has to do a better job of teaching the proper techniques from a very early age,” the former Naval Academy quarterback added.
Attention was certainly being paid to thoroughly instructing the kids on proper tackling. And they didn’t hesitate to learn…In fact, the wobble tackling dummy appeared to be the hit of the day, as long lines of kids excitedly waited their turn to give it a try.
The two-day program eventually reached its end but the memory of the time spent there is much longer lasting.
“Things can happen if one person takes one stand. So don’t wait for someone else…take that opportunity, step onto the field and take that leadership opportunity no matter where it is. A wave starts with a ripple and those are key things to remember as you go through middle school to high school and then into college,” said John Hightower.