After Dedric Ward was drafted into the NFL by the New York Jets in 1997, he thought back to his days as a young athlete growing up in Cedar Rapids.
“I wanted to dream and go to those bigger (football) camps,” he said.
He, like many young athletes then and now, wasn’t able to realize that dream, however. Camps, in any sport, are expensive and those less fortunate often aren’t able to take advantage of those opportunities.
“We weren’t poor,” Ward said, “... but we weren’t able to splurge.”
The price of camps, and those left behind, has been a hot topic lately. These camps, unfortunately, aren’t for everybody. Athletes from more affluent families are — and have been — getting better coaching, better opportunities and better exposure to college and professional recruiters.
That leaves some young, talented athletes behind. Some quit before they have a chance to shine.
Knowing he could have been in that group, Ward wanted to offer young football players something different — a camp for anybody and everybody with special training and wisdom from current or former NFL and college players.
A camp that was free.
Twenty-two years later, Ward still is offering this opportunity, still telling all kids they can do great things no matter where of what they come from.
“My motivation has never been money,” he said.
This year’s camp is Friday and Saturday at the Metro Youth Football Complex, for boys and girls in grades four through nine. It’s for the talented and those maybe still trying to figure the game out.
“Everybody gets treated equally,” Ward said.
And, he said, it’s not even really about football.
“We use football as a backdrop,” he said. “We’re teaching life skills.”
Many athletes or former athletes often talk about the benefits of sports — teamwork, discipline, hard work. Ward mentions those, too, but adds “dedication, determination” and “don’t sell yourself short.”
“We tell these kids there are positive people out there,” he said.
They do teach some football skills, but “it’s just more to get the kids out and moving around.”
While Ward started this camp 22 years ago, this actually is the 19th he’s hosted. He took a few years off while living in Arizona, but was encouraged to start it up again when he returned home.
“It’s been going strong since,” he said.
He’s proud of what he’s been able to do and should be. But he always hoped some “younger guys, more energetic guys” would come along — former players who followed a similar path to college or professional careers — and take over.
“It just hasn’t happened,” he said.
So Ward, now 44, keeps chugging along. He’s quick to point out, he doesn’t do this alone. Some of his former UNI teammates — like Tyree Talton and Andre Allen — join him, as well as former Jets teammates Leon Johnson and Kevin Williams. They may not be household names, but they all know what it takes to get from here to there.
And ... they “care about kids and want to leave an impact on kids.”
Ward wants to host his camp for one more year — at least.
“My goal when I started it was to try and get to 20 years,” he said.
Here’s a vote for many more.
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