Gaining skill and pride

Matt Gerstner/PrepsKC

By Matt Gerstner PrepsKC staff writer
Posted: June 1, 2015 - 8:25 AM

For most of us, football ended many months ago. This weekend at Piper High School, however, many young players got to shake off the rust a bit early, and get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in the process.

USA Football hosted one of its 24 regional development camps in Kansas City Saturday and Sunday at Piper. Area players registered for the camp and refined techniques and learned new lessons from coaches from national colleges like Oklahoma State to area colleges like Benedictine. One of them, Marc Wilson, assistant football coach at Avila University, is in his third year with USA Football, serving as a master trainer as well as a development coach.

“We start with these regional development camps, which ends up being almost 3,000 kids in total,” he said of the U-19 national team. “From there we whittle it down to 600-800 kids at the national camp level, and it’s intense, it’s full-contact. We’re trying to develop comradery and teamwork there as well as putting together playbooks to make them better. From there we choose 50-60 kids that compete on the international level.”

That opportunity is made available to kids in sixth grade to departing seniors across all talent levels and experience. After regional camps, coaches and staff convene and discuss who perhaps should be invited to the next step, national camp.

“It’s really a team effort on who decides should go,” USA football staff member Brendan Mankarious said. “The players will go through an individual evaluation conducted by our coaching staff. We keep those recommendations on file and select the team based on those. Coaches and staff both have input, and yes we’re looking for the best player, but we’re also looking for character; someone that’s going to represent their country in a pristine way.”

And to earn that invitation to the national camp, players must stand out on the field and, just as importantly to “head camp coach” Aaron Brady, off it.

“We’re looking for top-right players. We’re looking for young men that are great leaders, and when adversity comes, they carry themselves well. We look for someone that supports their teammates, and even something as simple as opening the door for somebody off the field. We want to build special young men,” Brady said. “We get to wear USA on our chest, and it almost brings a tear to my eye to even think about that.”

Brady, who coaches at Malvern Prep High School in central Penn., has been with the team since 2010, including last year when USA won the gold medal at the IFAF World Championships in Kuwait.

“The Prince of Kuwait loves American football. Who knew?” Brady said with a chuckle. “They have a national team. He said, ‘If you guys come here and allow us to play in the tournament, we will pay for everybody once you get here.”

After beating Mexico, Germany, Japan, and, finally, Canada in the championship game, the Prince paid for silver rings to commemorate the team’s win.

“It was a great experience.”

Some players, including Jay Griffin of Camdenton, Mo., have had first-hand experience of what the development camps can provide. Griffin took the trip to Cowboys Stadium last year to participate in the games that can lead to selection for the international roster. For him, it’s just another day on the field.

“Football is year-round for me,” he said. “With the U.S. team, it’s just a process from spring to summer to fall, and I love it. Playing for your country, it’s just unreal.”

Griffin, while also trying to earn another shot to play with and against some of the top young talent in the nation, is also trying to teach the younger kids from his experiences with the camp.

“You want to show them this is a camp to get you better, but also you want to show them what you got,” he said. “While you’re getting better, you’re trying to show them you already know it and experienced it, and you’re ready to take it to the next level. You’re trying to teach them that mindset.”

Others, like linemen Christian Grissom from Platte County and Anders Vance from Louisburg, see it as an opportunity to improve themselves from a professional standpoint.

“I feel like it is an opportunity to make ourselves perfect,” Grissom said. “They’re honing on the skills that we know we need to make ourselves perfect and go out and compete and dominate because we’re going beyond the fourth quarter.

“But it helps us understand that accept the process of getting better. We have a lot of kids out here younger than us, but they’re still learning the same tools as us. It really helps us to accept that process.”

For Vance, the chance to represent his country is something he can barely wrap his head around.

“To be able to wear that USA on your chest and know that the whole country is behind you, it’s an unbelievable opportunity to have,” he said.

Wilson worked with Grissom and Vance as the defensive line coach at the camp. Wilson, as well as the rest of the staff, have a few things on their checklist they look for throughout the weekend.

“We always relate it to Batman. In my mind, he isn’t a superhero. But he had a lot of cool toys. And what we’re trying to do is add more tools to their belt,” Wilson explained. “And as we add in specific techniques that they work on, we want to see them take those from a drill standpoint to a competitive standpoint. We want to see them advance their knowledge and their execution.”

But as was the theme of the whole camp, the one phrase that was pounded into each of the players’ heads, the one trait that could mean a young man representing his country on the gridiron, Wilson and the rest of the coaches and staff were looking for one thing above all else.

“A top-right player.”