Upwards of 250 aspiring football players hit the practice field at Statesboro High Saturday as participants in the Justin Houston Youth Football Camp.
Houston excelled during his time at Statesboro High, which included a state championship. His tenure as a Blue Devil paved the way for his leap up to the college ranks at the University of Georgia, where he was named First-team All-SEC and First-team All-American for the 2010 season. He was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft and has paid huge dividends for his pro team as he led the league in sacks with 22 last season.
Despite becoming a household name in the country's most popular league, Houston hasn't forgotten where he came from and wanted to do his part to encourage other local kids who want to follow in his footsteps.
“I thought it would be a great experience for the kids,” Houston said. “A lot of us didn't get that experience growing up. My whole career, I've had to learn more and do more to succeed. That's the message I want to get through to the kids.”
Many players around the league spend their offseasons making hometown appearances, but Houston was able to go above and beyond. He recruited former SHS and UGA teammate — and current Baltimore Raven — DeAngelo Tyson to join him and also brought over one dozen current NFL players along for the ride.
Former UGA teammates, current Chiefs and a handful of others brought a total of 10 Pro Bowl selections to the field, much to the enjoyment of many clinic participants.
Tony Colley, a rising fifth-grader at Mill Creek Elementary, was all smiles in between drills after waiting all week for the clinic.
“It's cool playing with those guys,” Colley said. “They keep telling us to try our best and to work hard. I think it's going to help me when I play football with my team this year.”
As the clinic was free for everyone in attendance, it was no surprise that the turnout wasn't limited to locals.
“I've been trying to get to a lot of camps this summer,” Isaiah Montgomery, a rising freshman at Tri-Cities High in Atlanta, said. “It's great to get advice and to get some tips from guys who I root for every week.”
As the day wore on and the opening agility and speed drills concluded, things got competitive among the older clinic goers. Receivers and defensive backs raced down field for long throws, drawing cheers from their respective sides whenever a catch was made.
Houston had earlier claimed that just about everything that he and his fellow pros do will get competitive, and it held true as the camp's instructors began rooting and celebrating for each play, cheering on their guys while lobbing some playful trash talk at the competition.
But in the end, the day boiled down to the kids involved and the opportunity to get some advice on a game they love from professionals that they look up to.
“It's great to see everyone out here and having fun,” Cincinnati Bengals Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green said. “These kids coming out today work so hard. A lot of them have more skill than I did at their age. That's carrying over when they move up to the next level and it's good for the game.”
“I want to help anytime I can do something positive for the kids,” Houston said. “I want to show them that dreams do come true. I was once in their shoes. They need to know that it takes a lot of hard work, but if you're willing to put that in, you can get what you want in life.”
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.