CAMDEN – Atop the in-ground concrete bleachers, on a hillside next to the football field, the two men stand. They watch and chew the fat.
They talk about the way things were when they grew up in Camden. Still, they bleed the black and gold of the Centerville Simbas’ Pop Warner football program. Now, the cousins-in-law share a vision.
Rashaan Hornsby, the team’s president, and former president Rasheed Pollard talk about hope. They will hold a football camp on Saturday at the Isabel Miller Community Center to help foster dreams of success.
It’s where Hornsby shows up every day to make sure the park’s in good shape. He invests his time in the community and its children. The 35-year-old knows sports make a difference in youngsters’ lives.
He’s aware of the importance.
“Being out here every day, it helps stop the negativity,” Hornsby says. “During the school year, we try to get the kids right after school and hold them for five to six hours to feed the transition from school to sports.”
The hope is Saturday’s camp will help spark more interest from kids. Hornsby and Pollard expect close to 300 registrants at the 9 a.m. signup time.
Campers will receive free breakfast and lunch as well as skills training for the small price of $10.
“So many of these kids just don’t eat,” Hornsby said. “Many don’t have fathers around. We see it as coaches every day.”
Pollard agrees. He remembers his days as a teenager. Then, spare time normally ended at a court or field. Kids played sports year-round, he recalls.
With specialization prevalent among young athletes now, he sees less and less participation.
“Now, everybody wants to be a basketball star,” Pollard said. “It’s hard when they get to that age where there’s so much they can get into.
“Kids gravitate to what’s shiny. We need to expose them to positive things. When you’re 14 or 15, you have the streets or people in their ear telling them they’re better than they are. Or, there’s no support system. It’s very challenging.”
Despite the uphill battle, the duo keeps on. They believe the park — one of the best maintained in the city, according to Hornsby — provides a safe place for children to play at their hearts’ content.
Coaches and mentors come to the park on a daily basis. Last Tuesday, they lined up 40 to 50 kids on the football field and put them through drills.
“I think they think everyone in Camden is bad,” Pollard says. “That’s not it. A lot of good things are going on here. We need to shed some light on that.”
The emphasis isn’t novel, yet the cause remains noble. In the past few months, Camden High School has seen a few of its football players commit to Division I college programs.
It’s also seen transfer and recruit Jameer Bullard gunned down and killed on April 25.
“I’ve lost at least 20 close friends, and I mean close friends, to the streets of Camden,” Pollard said. “How are we going to break the cycle in this city? I think we know how to do it, I just don’t know if we have the resources.”
The path to change starts with the youth, he insists. It’s up to community leaders to stay in touch with the neighborhood and its children. There, the hand is outstretched.
When it comes to Centerville and its tradition of strong teams since 1969, the hand is offering a pigskin.
“I think we’re doing a good job elevating these kids, helping them get to the next level and understand that education comes first,” said Brad Hawkins Sr., the director of football operations for Whitman Park youth football and father of recent University of Michigan commit Brad Hawkins Jr. “Football is an outlet. If you can use that outlet to get to school, then that’s great.
“Football is becoming a nine-month sport. That means we stay in contact with these kids.”
Camden High School coach Dwayne Savage echoes the assessment. Most of the youth programs use parts of his playbook. It helps rising freshmen. They know the Panthers’ terminology. Familiarity can foster a quick transition to playing time.
The lesson of discipline also provides stability.
“When they start playing early, they’re doing the team aspect and learning that you gotta be on time,” Savage said. “By the time they get to us, they understand if you aren’t on time, it might affect your position on the team.
“Every single kid that’s going to college right now (from Camden High School’s football team), they played in one of the football programs in the city somewhere.”
The four programs include: Centerville Simbas, Whitman Park Tigers, Stanley Park Panthers and Camden PAL Bulldogs. Centerville and Stanley Park both separate division by weight. Whitman Park and Stanley Park divide players by age.
While some communities see local programs rival each other, the four in Camden do their best to accommodate. Centerville and Whitman Park work together closely through the football season.
Whitman Park hasn’t had a true home game in close to seven years, Hawkins Sr. says. Instead, they use Centerville’s fields for their home games.
“They coordinate so both teams can use the field,” Savage said. “That just shows these guys talk and work together.”
The closeness is reflected in the city’s two football teams, Camden and Woodrow Wilson.
“What always amazed me was the fact former players come back and it doesn’t matter if you’re a Camden grad or Woodrow Wilson grad. They’ll come and speak to the other side, too,” said Savage, who first coached in Camden as a Wilson assistant in 1999.
Those involved with football remain tight-knit in a city that needs all the help it can get.
“Except on Thanksgiving Day,” Savage says with a loud laugh.
The helpers in the community have opinions on how their city is seen from the outside. They believe misconceptions have become the norm.
“I don’t think people understand the mental part that plays on these kids being at a disadvantage,” Hawkins Sr. says. “I don’t think the outside knows the magnitude it plays in a child’s head when they’re in a city stepping outside and hearing gunfire.
“Some of these kids see it every day. They walk outside and see it on their block. It’s already taking a serious negative effect on them. A lot of what they’re seeing every day, they think it’s cool and are told it’s cool.”
Hornsby has public speakers come to his park and educate the children on topics from financial responsibility to college preparation. He says he’s enjoyed every day of his two-year stint as Simbas’ president.
Through his Elvis Costello-like glasses, Hornsby looks out on the freshly-mowed field and reflects.
“We’ve had a lot of great players come out of here,” he says with a wisp of nostalgia. “(Former NFL player) Rashad Baker the Touchdown Maker, he played here.
“He got his nickname right here on this field.”
Mark Trible; (856) 486-2424; firstname.lastname@example.org
Camden City Football Skills Camp
• When: Saturday, July 18
• Where: Isabel Miller Community Center, 8th St., Camden
• Registration: 9 a.m.
• Time: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
• Cost: $10
• Benefits: Campers will receive free breakfast and lunch as well as direction from local coaches