Moving the Chains On and Off the Field

 

UT alum Daron Roberts, a Harvard Law grad turned NFL football coach, created a camp to help underprivileged kids make it to college. He couldn’t have done it without a cadre of Longhorns.

It’s 8 a.m. on the first day of 4th and 1 Football Camp and founder Daron Roberts, BA ’01, Life Member, isn’t pleased. At 5’10, he cuts a robust figure, standing at the front of a classroom in crisp khakis and a blue dress shirt.

Roberts’ five-day camp, set at Northeast Texas Community College in his bucolic hometown of Mount Pleasant, has brought together 35 at-risk high school students—students who are now looking at Roberts, defensive secondary coach with the NFL’s Detroit Lions, with a mixture of awe and trepidation on this hazy July morning.

They are in trouble—and they know it. No, a fight hadn’t broken out. No, no one had teased each other. And no, no one had wanted to call mom just yet.

This camp was supposed to mirror an NFL-style training camp. And a few kids had just forgotten their cleats.

But Roberts, who talks more like a CEO than a coach, didn’t bark at his players. He didn’t lecture for long. If his revolutionary camp had been all about football, he might have. But 4th and 1 was never about football.

Sure, the kids refined their football skills on the turf every morning, performing drills under the tutelage of elite NFL and college coaches. But football was only two hours out of a jam-packed day, which consisted of constant activity from 6:15 a.m. to past 10 p.m.:

Yoga. Football. Shower. SAT prep. Lunch. SAT prep. Workshop. Workshop. Dinner. Workshop.
Not your typical summer camp, eh?

The SAT prep is self-explanatory—two hours a day of math and verbal practice—but what of these “workshops?” There is life after football practice, Roberts thought—life for which these kids aren’t prepared, and not by their own fault. So he whipped out his Blackberry and scrolled through his contacts. Who could teach them about what to wear for a job interview? Which fork to use at a formal dinner?  And how to draft a resume?

Often, the answer was a fellow UT alumnus. A litany of them worked at the camp: Sorush Shawn Abboud, BBA ’02, Life Member, taught a class on money management. Alex Hammond, BA ’04, engaged students on the importance of grades and the SAT. Heather Edwards, BSW ’01, Life Member, worked behind the scenes, compiling test-score data for further research. Larry Erwin, BBA ’05, talked about his own story, from playing basketball in a small Texas town to investment banking in New York (and beyond). Roberts’ high school English teacher, Judy Hinson, taught the students proper dinner etiquette. And what’s a high-profile football camp without some NFL players?  Former Longhorn star linebacker and now Kansas City Chief Derrick Johnson ’01, Life Member, met with campers at the end of the week, taking questions on everything from the importance of education to life as an NFL star.

It doesn’t end there. Former Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff, BS ’60, Distinguished Alumnus and Life Member, addressed the student-athletes. The camp concluded with an impassioned speech from Longhorns football broadcaster Ahmad Brooks, BS ’05.

The network of Longhorns who helped Roberts at the camp reminded him why he wanted the student-athletes to pursue a college education: “I want to reshape their circles of influence.”

And if they couldn’t teach, UT alumni helped out in other ways—namely, fundraising for the free weeklong camp. Among many others, the indispensable Royce Carr, BA ’74, BS ’76, Life Member, raised money for the camp, enabling all of the student-athletes to attend free of charge. Food, lodging, and the wealth of coaching and teaching expertise for the week would otherwise have cost each camper several hundred dollars.

Then there’s Jake Joseph, BS ’02, perhaps the only other workshop leader at 4th and 1 with a story rivaling that of founder Daron Roberts. Joseph is a Red Bull marketing hotshot turned underwear designer.

Among the sea of polo shirts emblazoned with football team insignias, it’s pretty easy to spot the fashion designer. On the day of his workshop, “Tie or No Tie?” Joseph dons grey pants and a white shirt with the top three buttons undone. His hair is slicked back. Plain and simple, Jake Joseph oozes cool.

After everyone had a decent grasp of the half-Windsor knot, Joseph talked about his own story and the importance of goal-setting.

“[Success] is about reducing the what-ifs in their lives,” said Joseph. “Our innermost dreams and activities require effort. We came up with good ways to get their ideas moving.”

As a part of the exercise, the students said their own goals aloud, one by one:

Don’t party in college.
Get a high SAT score and GPA.
See the world.
Graduate high school.
Become a park ranger.
Provide for my younger brother.
Be better than my brother.
Be a motivational speaker.
Have twins.
Create a camp like 4th and 1 for kids like us.

The last goal struck a chord with many on the staff, not least because it was a surprise—the boy who said it had perhaps the most disciplinary issues of all the campers—but also because it reminded them of the camp’s mission. Every 4th and 1 camper was underprivileged in some way: minority status, first-generation college attendee, or single-parent household.

“And many of these kids are batting two for three or three for three on that front,” said Roberts.

In summer 2006, Daron Roberts boarded a flight back to Boston before his final year of law school. He had just returned from coaching at Steve Spurrier’s football camp at the University of South Carolina, a sabbatical from his grueling hours as a summer legal clerk.

“I was struck by how football attracted so many young people from across the country to Columbia, South Carolina,” said Roberts, who played high school football—first team all-district, mind you—for the Mount Pleasant Tigers. “South Carolina was where I started thinking that I could use football as a hook to get young men energized to study for the SAT and learn life skills.”  He had the itch.

But then his last year of law school beckoned, and Roberts put down the playbook and picked up the casebook. He graduated from Harvard and did what any reasonable person in his situation would do: spurn his six-figure job offers and try to coach professional football.

Wait, what?

Roberts’ itch to coach football demanded a scratch. As the May 17 issue of ESPN Magazine details, he sent 164 cover letters to NFL and college football teams—only to be rejected by all of them, except one: the Kansas City Chiefs. Sleeping on an air mattress in the stadium and rising at 4 a.m. daily, Roberts impressed the coaching staff enough to earn a full-time job as a defensive assistant. He now coaches for the Detroit Lions.

Still, memories of South Carolina stuck with him, and in January 2010 he set out to establish a similar camp.

After securing an agreement with Northeast Texas Community College to host his own football camp in July, Roberts remembered thinking to himself: “I can actually pull this off.”

He set out to raise funds, create a website, and, most importantly, solicit applications for his future “change agents”—students who would later hail their camp experience as life-changing.

Terrance Walker, who was named MVP of the camp, was full of praise. “At first, I was a little intimidated by the SAT,” Walker said, “but I figured out that with a little help and studying, it’s just another test. I have more confidence toward reaching my goals, and I can thank 4th and 1 for that.”

Roberts said that the adult organizers benefited from the camp as well. “Most of us do not get the opportunity to interact with young men at this stage of their development, and all the staff found the experience to be invigorating.”

The day after camp ended, Roberts began working on several additions for the following year. The East-Texas native said there is a “a very good chance” that 4th and 1 will establish a yearlong SAT course for its campers and require accepted students to complete a significant community service project in order to receive an invitation to return.

Sound intense?  Good. That’s what Roberts—and his pupils—want. They like the work. They embrace the challenge. They crave the opportunity. So next July, when Roberts greets his charges at 8 a.m. on the first day of camp, trust that everyone has brought their cleats—and an extra pair.

On July 16, after all the practice SATs, after all the football, after all the workshops, Roberts stood in the dusty high school parking lot with Royce Carr and Derrick Johnson. It was the last day of camp and the lot was empty except for their cars.

“You guys probably have the same story as me,” Carr began. He was the first in his family to graduate from college, and, rather fortuitously, “chose UT because it had a good football team. In return, it gave me a career which I’ve been practicing for 36 years,” said Carr, a geologist.

“The story is that I owe UT a debt that I’ll never be able to repay.”

Roberts and Johnson looked back at him and smiled.

“You are absolutely right,” they said under a burnt-orange Texas sky. ♦

The 2011 edition of 4th and 1 will be held July 11-15. Visit 4thand1.org to donate, recommend a camper, or apply. For more information, email founder Daron Roberts at daronroberts@4thand1.org.

Shaj Mathew attends the University of Pennsylvania. His writing has appeared in The Millions, National Geographic’s “My Wonderful World,” This is American Soccer, Goal.com, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

Photos by Sonya Roberts Woods

 

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