Scott Eden; reporter, author

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PLAYING TO WIN

St. Petersburg Times
August 15, 2006


Twenty-five kids, ages 5 to 13, are lying flat on their backs in the middle of a field on a Wednesday afternoon in late July. Warming up before football practice, they're attempting to hold their legs in unison 6 inches off the ground.

The ground is sand, stitched here and there with patches of browning grass. The park, at E 34th Avenue and 52nd Street, is surrounded by shotgun houses. Gnats and mosquitoes are thick in the air, forcing everyone to swat constantly at their faces, necks, arms, legs - except the players, who are struggling to lift their feet and keep them up for 10 seconds at a time.

"If I see anybody put their legs down before 10," one of the coaches shouts, "y'all owe me some laps!"

Marvin Campbell, one of the key people behind the Grant Park Tigers youth football program, paces down the ranks and casts an appraising eye on his charges. He holds his hands behind his back. He squints and purses his lips. He has a whistle around his neck, a stopwatch in his pocket. He wears a white fishing hat against the blazing sun. His chest is as burly as a beer keg and his legs are veiny with strength, vestiges of his time as a player, which came to an end more than 20 years ago.

The Tigers' first game is Aug. 26. Hovering over the players, Campbell says, "Only the strong will be starting out there come game day. The weak will not be starting. There's a lot of athletic ability here, but if you're not ready, you're not playing."

He stops at a boy, 12 years old and already 6 feet tall, who is sitting upright, defying the instructions of the coaches. The boy is slapping at his arms, which are coated in sand. Campbell, 49, looks down and says, "You itching? You got ants crawling on you? I know it's bad, but that's football."

*

It is the third practice of the first season in the history of the Grant Park Tigers, one of seven teams in the Unity Football Conference. Football is just one of the lessons kids learn here.

The league was formed last year by Orlando Gudes, a Tampa police officer, as a way of bringing the sport to children in poor neighborhoods. Gudes saw that economics were preventing large numbers of kids from playing organized football. In the Grant Park neighborhood, for example, 26.5 percent of families live below the poverty line, according to the 2000 census.

To give kids a chance to join, Unity set its registration fee at just $25 a player, compared with the $200 or more charged by Pop Warner and other youth leagues around the bay area. The balance of the Unity budget comes from donations.

"I've been trying to get a team here for 11 years, because kids are dropping out of school left and right," Campbell says as the players take a water break under the shade of a tree on the field's perimeter. "This league will keep a lot of them from dropping out or selling drugs on the street at 10 or 11 years of age.

"Plus, you've got to make the grade. If you want to play, you've got to make the grade." Meaning players must go to school, stay out of trouble and maintain at least a C average.

Often Campbell makes the connection between academics and athletics. "This game kept me in school," he told his players on the first day of practice. "This game got me a college education."

*

Campbell, who grew up on Tampa's east side, was raised by his mother after his parents split up when he was 7. Today he does not know if his father is dead or alive. An all-district and all-county running back out of Brandon High School, class of 1975, Campbell accepted a football scholarship from the University of Louisville. But the head coach was fired after Campbell's freshman year, and his successor wouldn't allow players to participate in more than one sport.

Frustrated, Campbell transferred to Peru State College in Peru, Neb. After graduation, unable to leave behind his dream of playing football professionally, he went through a series of tryouts with the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins of the NFL and with the Tampa Bay Bandits and Orlando Renegades of the USFL. He also went north and auditioned for the Canadian Football League.

"I wanted to play professional football for one reason," he says. "To take care of my mom." He kept trying until he was 31 but never made a roster. "God was saying to me, 'We've got something better in store for you.' "

He became a teacher and has worked for four years at Clair-Mel Elementary. He also runs the summer and after-school children's programs at Grant Park Community Center.

Football was his salvation, he says: "If it wasn't for the discipline it brought me, I'd be dead. Or in prison for life."

Now he's trying to bring some of that discipline to the kids at Grant Park.

*

Finished with calisthenics, the players run through drills involving orange cones - short bursts of sprinting and backpedaling, and cuts that make demands of their footwork. They're divided into three groups: the tykes, the fourth- and fifth-graders, and the middle schoolers. (The youngest kids will play flag football; everyone else will wear pads.)

Campbell spends most of his time among the oldest group. At first the players trot through the drills, and Campbell doesn't like what he sees.

"Cut and sprint to the next one! Cut and sprint to the next one!

"Sprint to it, sprint to it! Be a man!"

If a player is still slow, Campbell will charge with his barrel chest toward the boy in an effort to speed him up. "I feel like tackling you," he says to a lollygagging player before rushing in. Sometimes the player will stumble to the ground in a cloud of dust, and his teammates in line will burst out laughing.

"Get up, get up. You're all right. C'mon."

One of the players, a seventh-grader named Arthur Battle, is attempting to make his cuts wearing what appear to be suede ankle-high hush puppies. Skinny as a rail, he lopes through the drill like a colt just getting his feet underneath him. Campbell calls him out of the line: "Arthur! Come here, hustle!"

Battle, having participated in the Grant Park summer programs, has known Coach Marvin, as the kids call Campbell, since he was 5 years old. Though he enjoys football, Battle's favorite sport is soccer. When asked if he might use football as a way to go to college the way Coach Marvin did, he appears offended.

"I'm into technology," he says. "I want to make things!"

On the field, a box of cleats, donated to the league by Nike, appears in Battle's lap. Campbell looks on with fatherly interest. "Double-tie them now. Double-tie them. I don't want to see you slipping out there no more," he says, standing over the boy. "Now get back in line!"

*

Later, during the interval between one drill and the next, another player Campbell has known for years is complaining out loud about something while a coach is trying to make a point.

"Who said that?" Campbell yells to the players. No answer. The players kick at the sand and stare at the ground. "Then it looks like I'm going to make the whole group run!"

Finally, at the urging of his teammates, the offending talker steps forward. Campbell instructs him to run to the other side of the field and back, a good 100 yards. "If you don't make it in 30 seconds, you're going again," he says. As the boy takes off, Campbell calls after him, "Don't make your mama waste her money!"

After practice, Campbell pulls the boy aside, puts his arm around his shoulder and quietly confers with him for a moment. Later, reflecting on this bit of counseling, Campbell says, "With him, growing up, his biggest thing is he'd quit as soon as you applied any pressure, as soon as things got tough. I told him, 'Life is not always going to be easy. It's not always going to go your way.'

"Half the time with these kids the problem is they don't have a father who's around. When they need someone to get on their ass, no one's there to get on their ass. It's usually one of two things: The father's in jail or he's dead. And that's sad.

"When I was growing up, if it wasn't for certain teachers and coaches, I wouldn't have made it. If football is going to keep them in school so they graduate, then that's what they need. They need something to motivate them."

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