Under the sun at Palo Alto High School this past weekend, over 300 boys and girls ages 7-14 gathered on the football field for an unforgettable experience with San Francisco 49er inside linebacker Patrick Willis. What left a lasting impression on some of the kids is what surprised me the most, but a few details about the camp first.
ProCamps is a well oiled machine. They have a great staff and the ratio of kids to coach is about 8 to 1. The kids are grouped by age and do a number of drills on both sides of the ball then eventually scrimmage. The coaches are enthusiastic and very encouraging. The build up for these kids is immense so there were occasional emotional breakdowns, but the attentive coaching staff was ready with a pep talk and a hug. The “head coach” for the camp for both days was Rod Huber, head football coach for College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio. Huber has been a coach for over 30 years and has worked with ProCamps for 6. He is a marvel at keeping the kids organized and motivated. He is an emcee and a motivational speaker all wrapped up into one. He keeps his directions concise and the kids are all too eager to follow. He even gets these kids to sit quietly and listen…all of them, at the same time. When Coach Huber introduced Patrick Willis, there was no doubt he had everyone’s attention.
Willis spoke in a reserved tone, after chuckling that he had never had such an enthusiastic introduction as what Huber had given him. His first message was simple. He told the campers that the most important thing was being a team. “It doesn’t matter what color you are, where you come from, or how much money your parents make, we are a team.” He thanked all of the sponsors and the people involved with putting the camp together and then they broke into teams for drills. He visited all of the age groups, posed for photos and even participated in some of the drills.
The second day of the camp included 30 and 40 yard dashes depending on the age group. Willis stood at the finish line indicating the fastest of each group as they whizzed by. Shortly after, a rare opportunity arose for a few of the kids to ask Patrick Willis questions. If you didn’t like this guy already, you surely will now.
Camper: What school did you go to? (At this point, about 50 kids yell “Ole Miss!”)
Patrick Willis: I went to Ole Miss. I originally wanted to go to Tennessee but they didn’t want me. But when someone doesn’t want you, that doesn’t mean you give up wanting to go to school or wanting to pursue your dream, that just means you find a way to go get it somewhere else. It worked out, I went to Ole Miss, they gave me a full ride, that’s where I went and here I am years later.
Camper: What did you do with your first check?
PW: (laughs) I bought a house for my grandmother.
Camper: Who is your favorite football player?
PW: Anyone who comes in everyday and works hard, that’s who gets my respect.
Here’s what surprised me. Later, when I asked some of the parents what their kids thought about the camp, many of them talked about Willis’ messages and how that was what the kids were discussing on the way home. They were talking about how he was right, that it doesn’t matter who you are or what color your skin is, that it is important to be a team and work as a team. They talked about how you have to keep trying, keep following your dream.
In a society where there is constant media coverage of professional athletes’ mistakes, (DUIs, battery, weapons violations and bankruptcies just to name a few) it is so refreshing to discover that kids have positive role models like Patrick Willis to follow and that they actually listen to them. Thank you Patrick Willis, job well done.