Peanuts and pros

Published 11:22 pm Saturday, August 1, 2009

Nearly 100 young football players came out Saturday for the first Peanut City Football Camp, hosted at Nansemond River High School, unofficially kicking off the Pop Warner football season.

The camp brought together athletes who will be playing with the Inner City Athletic Association, the Suffolk Steelers, with coaches, players from Nansemond River and Lakeland who volunteered their time to help with drills and instruction.

The camp also included a special guest … former National Football League star Mel Gray.

For three hours, players, broken up into age groups, rotated through five different drill stations, emphasizing agility and quickness, throwing and catching, advanced passing and route running, hitting and blocking and then another on ball carrying and proper footwork for running backs.

The Steelers will go full bore into practice starting Monday with a few weeks before the Pop Warner schedule gets underway. In addition to the football fundamentals, Gray talked to the players about why they need more than athletic skills for life, even if their goal is to play in the NFL.

Gray, who grew up in Williamsburg and played at Lafayette High School, attended Purdue where he was an All-Big Ten running back for the Boilermakers.

“I was just like you guys,” said Gray, speaking to the students. “I started when I was 8 years old. That’s when I started youth football.”

From Purdue, Gray was drafted in the second round of the NFL draft and went on to play for six USFL or NFL teams, most notably for the Detroit Lions from 1989-94.

Gray told the youngsters intelligence, discipline and character can overcome even athletic shortcomings on the football field.

“I was drafted as a running back, and I weighed 162 pounds,” Gray said.

Gray was selected to the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade team as the best kick and punt returner and was selected to four Pro Bowls and named All-Pro seven times.

“The most important thing is you’ve got to be smart. You’ve got to be smart about everything, from the way you eat, to the way you practice, and you’ve got to be book smart and work hard in school,” Gray said. “You need all of that to get to the next level.”

Even for the lucky few who are talented enough to play a pro sport, studying hard in school can still be the difference in success or failure said Gray.

“Even if you’re a pro athlete, when you make a team, you get this big playbook, and it’s complicated,” he said.

Most importantly however, Gray’s advice went past football.

“This is the first camp I’ve been to where everyone listened the whole time. To get anywhere, you have to listen,” Gray said. “Don’t ever be a quitter. I don’t care what it is. If you start something, do everything in your power to finish it.”