When the NFL pulled its support of youth camps across the country, Jason Baker was annoyed. Then he was liberated.
No longer would the Carolina Panthers punter have to follow the corporate blueprint. He could brainstorm. He could innovate. He could experiment. He could raise money and spend it the way he felt would make the most impact.
That unexpected freedom has led to one of the most unique youth football camps in the country Saturday and Sunday at Wayne and Concordia Lutheran high schools.
About 250 middle school students will take part in Baker's two-day “Pro Football Mini-Camp,” but it'll cost them. Not in their parents' cash, but in the youngsters' time and effort.
“Our goal is not to just have a football camp,” said Baker, a Fort Wayne native. “It's great and we will have a focus on skills and fundamentals. But the reality is, we're trying to be unique in that it's a holistic camp. We're not just paying lip service to the character-building stuff.”
As soon as participants arrive Saturday morning, they'll be assigned to buses and go to a community service organization in the city.
They'll learn what the organization does, and then they'll get their feet wet with hands-on work.
“They'll tell kids why it's important, and then ask them to help with a project,” Baker said. “They get two hours' worth of community service.”
The community service sites are Associated Churches, Charis House, Community Harvest Food Bank, Crossroads Children's Home, Euell A. Wilson Center, Franciscan Center, Golden Years, Interfaith Hospitality Network, St. Mary's, Turnstone and Vincent House.
After the students return, they'll be rewarded with Subway sandwiches and an afternoon of football instruction. They'll play until midafternoon and come back from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday for more football.
“Jason doesn't like to talk about himself, but he has a mission to teach the kids the skills and the lessons that can be learned through sports,” said Edmond O'Neal, who helped organize the community service work. “He wants to do more than say ‘If you work hard, you'll make it to the NFL,' because that's not realistic. The reality is you can learn through sports the skills that make you a responsible citizen.”
Another unique aspect of Baker's camp is a coaching clinic that will run while the students are performing their community service. Fifty-one of the area's top coaches will lead as many as 200 youth coaches in a lesson on keys to coaching football, on and off the field. A representative of the Positive Coaches Alliance will also speak and Baker's charity, Catie B Charities, has arranged for all coaches to be enrolled in an online course in positive coaching, if they choose to take it.
Baker mentioned an article about coaching that said a coach who begins in his 20s and coaches until his 60s could have an impact on more than 30,000 young people.
That impact could be positive or negative, and Baker wants to do his part to make sure it's the former.
“I feel good about the coaches' clinic and all the people who have gotten on board since the format changed, if you will,” Baker said. “A lot of people have helped turn this into a bigger-picture program.”
Baker said the list of committed and caring volunteers is a long one, including his family, O'Neal, Tina Farrington, Joni Kuhn, Tracie Martin, Theresa Wagler and coaches Dave Mohr, Mark Koehlinger and Eric Dorman.
What started as a setback with the NFL's withdrawal has turned 180 degrees. With the freedom to try a fresh approach, Baker's camp aims to teach youngsters what it means to care about your city and the people in it.