Football players give back to youth

Sunday, August 31, 2008 | 12:31 a.m. CDT; updated 12:49 a.m. CDT, Sunday, August 31, 2008
Missouri fans Zach Kurth, 15, left and Ben Humphreys, 11, cheer during the fourth quarter of the Tigers game against the Illinois Fighting Illini on Saturday night at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.

ST. LOUIS — Chris Thomas took his youth football team to the Arch Rivalry game for a specific reason.
“I’m trying to motivate them,” the St. Charles coach said. “A lot of these kids don’t have plans to go to college, so I want them to see how exciting college can be.”
Thomas’ players, most of whom will start high school next year, participated in the free football clinic at the Edward Jones Dome along with more than 500 youths. A few former MU and Illinois players who made it to the NFL ran through offensive and defensive drills, but they also focused on sportsmanship and the importance of education.
“When they see the actual field and get the feel of the turf, it gives them an idea of what’s possible,” said former Tiger Curtland Thomas, who played with the New Orleans Saints. “It makes them try to achieve that, to get through school and strive to that.”
As a single parent who never knew his own father, Chris Thomas tries to be a positive influence for his players, five of whom he said come from “broken homes.”
“Some are really good athletes, but they’ve got bad social situations,” he said.
Chris Thomas said he often invites his son’s friends from the team to his home to show them what they could achieve. Thomas played running back at Missouri Valley College, and now works in construction for Laclede Gas Company.
Like many youths, a lot of Thomas’ players want to be professional athletes, and Thomas encourages them to stay in school and follow their dream.
“I’d just be happy if he gets a college degree,” Thomas said of his son, Chris Thomas Jr. “He wants to try to get in the NFL. I tried out and didn’t make it, so he’s trying to go farther than I did.”
Aaron Payne, who plays quarterback for Thomas’ team, said he wants to play football at MU in the future. Saturday’s clinic was Aaron’s first time inside the Dome.
“It’s a lot smaller inside when you’re on the field,” he said.
Darion Roland disagreed: “It was pretty big,” he said.
Darion said he hopes to go to college on a baseball scholarship to study theology and business administration.
“I want to own one of those big churches,” he said.
Nick Schueddig, who plays both offensive and defensive lineman, said the drills at the clinic were helpful, but also a good time.
“Most of it was just horsing around having fun,” he said.
Thomas said he loves watching young players enjoying themselves.
“Last week they had a scrimmage, and they did good, and they knew they did good,” he said. “You could just see it in their faces; they were all smiling. It’s cool to see the kids out there having fun.”
Of course, it’s not always fun for Thomas’ players. The boys agreed they have a tough coach who makes them run a lot at practices. The team spent a few hours outside the arena before the game, and Thomas was on constant watch, telling his players to stay in sight, stop throwing bottle caps, leave the blond college girls alone. 
“He’s really good with the kids,” parent Bill Roberts said of the coach.
And Thomas is in it for the kids. His son had been playing football for a year before Thomas became inspired to coach. Five years ago he watched a Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club game where a little boy tossed the ball backward over his head to avoid being tackled. The hilarity of the incident convinced him coaching would be something he would enjoy.
It’s not without its challenges, though.
“The hardest part is getting them to practice,” Thomas said.
Since many kids come from less-privileged families, getting a ride to the field is not so simple. Thomas picks up some players himself. He also hopes to raise $2,500 through barbecues and magazine sales for boys who cannot afford $165 for equipment and registration.
Thomas acknowledged it is unfortunately all too common for young black men to be without strong role models at home. He said though he did not have a father, his grandfather helped give him direction.
“He always told me you get out of life what you put into it,” Thomas said.
Curtland Thomas, the former Tiger who volunteered at the clinic, said the kids need all the help they can get. He said meeting their heroes can encourage players to continue with the game and stay in school.
“It provides them with hope,” Thomas said. “Like with Barack (Obama) the other night. They see it’s possible that they can get there.”

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