New Orleans East football camp brings out hopes, dreams

Led by collegiate coaches from across the region, more than 100 aspiring young athletes spent an afternoon sharpening their football skills at a free half-day clinic at Joe Brown Memorial Park.

“If I can reach one kid today, and show them how to use football as a platform to achieve their dreams, I’m coming to Louisiana,” Richard Moncrief said of his decision to participate as a coach.

Moncrief, an Alabama native and former quarterback for Clemson University, burst with energy and enthusiasm as he cheered on some of the smallest players. He nicknamed each player after a different sports star as he instructed them to keep their heads up and eyes on the target while throwing.

The sweltering sun was cooled by a breeze, but the kids, ages 5 to 14, barely noticed the heat while their parents watched from the shade.

The clinic, held in eastern New Orleans, was hosted through a partnership between the NCAA Football’s Youth Initiative, the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.

Part of 20 clinics nationwide, the event originated in New Orleans in 2007, when NCAA Football USA Inc. provided $750,000 in grants, equipment and uniforms to assist in rebuilding the New Orleans Recreation Department’s youth football league following Hurricane Katrina.

From the sidelines, Renoitta Nelson watched her two boys, ages 8 and 10, run agility drills.

Nelson said for her sons, both of whom love to play football, baseball, and basketball, sports are “something positive, something to keep them out of the streets, and something to keep their heads focused.”

Sports continue to play a positive role in her own life, said Nelson, who plays in a softball league and is a quarterback for the Bayou Queens arena football team.

For some of the kids, it was their first time gripping a football, while others had experience playing on school and recreational teams.

Kwahn Drake, a graduate assistant coach at Tulane University, said that by learning the fundamentals, the youngsters have the opportunity to take away valuable knowledge and skills, whether playing on a field with a team or in the street with friends.

Drake, who grew up on the West Bank before playing football at Destrehan High School and then Nicholls State, said he also hopes the kids also get inspired toward college.

For Drake, he said football is a way of life — one of his three Fs, along with faith and family.

“It’s always been there for me,” he said of the sport. “It allowed me to express myself, get my energy out, and helped me get a bachelor’s and a master’s degree.”

He said he tries to instill confidence in the kids to pursue their goals and to show them how to “use football to get where you want to go.”

During his childhood, Drake said, he remembered a few key people who encouraged him to “continue to fight even when things got hard at times.”

Nelson said her boys already know that they have to keep their grades up to play sports. “No grades, no sports,” she said. “You gotta do the work first.”

Moncrief, who runs his own quarterback institute, said that he loves working with children.

“At this age, there are so many possibilities. You never know which one will be a hall of famer, the president, or a doctor,” he said, watching the intensely focused young faces on the field. “If I can teach them and help them realize there are unlimited possibilities, that’s better than any touchdown.”