NFL high school football clinics address character | NevadaAppeal.com
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NFL high school football clinics address character

RACHEL COHEN
AP Sports Writer

NEW YORK (AP) – Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson led the NFL in rushing the last two seasons, so why is Peterson in seemingly every commercial while Johnson is rarely seen?

“It’s all about image and perception,” Jerry Horowitz, the NFL’s director of youth tackle football, told a group of high school players after making the point about the two running backs at a league-run clinic in Queens last month.

“The days of hoodlums are over.”

As commissioner Roger Goodell has cracked down on player misconduct, he’s made clear his aim is not only to punish lawbreaking but to prevent actions that tarnish the league’s reputation.

Horowitz left no doubt he sees a link between the NFL’s efforts to clean up behavior and the more than 125 High School Player Development clinics the league is running around the country this summer.

Speaking to nearly 150 kids at the start of the camp in Queens, he opened his remarks with this: “The landscape of the NFL is changing.”

“Commissioner Goodell is very stringent in how he hands out punishment,” Horowitz told them.

The HSPD programs, co-sponsored by the National Guard, generally run for 10 hours over five days. In their 10th year, the free clinics will reach more than 20,000 high school football players in 34 states. Participants practice football skills, but also take part in “character development” lessons.

Horowitz, a former New York high school football coach who oversees the programs, said NFL officials recognize that by the time many players reach the league, the seeds of misconduct already have been planted – and changing behavior requires more than disciplining players after they go astray.

“Once they come to us, it’s too late,” Horowitz said in an interview with The Associated Press after a session at a park in the Jamaica section of Queens on June 14.

“I blame a lot of colleges for enabling these kids,” he added.

Johnson, incidentally, has never been in trouble off the field. But he conceded in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel in April that “I know people think I’m a bad guy because of my dreads and gold teeth.”

As Horowitz said, it’s all about image and perception. Goodell suspended Ben Roethlisberger for six games even though prosecutors decided not to charge the Steelers quarterback in a case involving a 20-year-old college student who accused him of sexually assaulting her in a Milledgeville, Ga., nightclub.

“You are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct in Milledgeville that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible, or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans,” Goodell said in a letter to Roethlisberger.

Horowitz’s point about Peterson and Johnson might not have fully registered with the teenagers, though. Asked later why the Tennessee running back is in fewer commercials, one player said he figured it was because Johnson’s Titans didn’t win as much as Peterson’s Minnesota Vikings.

But Goodell’s crackdown hasn’t gone unnoticed at the high school level, either.

“It’s unfortunate, when you’re blessed to play in the NFL, to have it taken away,” said Da’Quan Williams, a freshman at Queen’s Bayside High School.

“You have to pay the consequences,” added Corey Peterson, a ninth-grader at nearby Flushing High.

Williams said the lesson of the NFL discipline is clear: “Stay out of trouble.”

During that day’s character development session, coaches from Maritime College, a Division III program in the Bronx, told the kids that they care about more than recruits’ rushing stats or 40-yard dash times. They observe whether a player looks them in the eye, whether he says “please” and “thank you.”

Overall, though, the session focused on how students can be more organized in class. All campers receive an academic planner that includes guidance on goal-setting, inspirational quotes and advice on areas such as sportsmanship and citizenship.

Horowitz said the spotlight on schoolwork was consistent with improving behavior, because an academically motivated athlete is more likely to stay out of trouble.

But this particular clinic came with a bit of a mixed message. It overlapped with a week of Regents exams, which New York students must pass to graduate, so players were working on football drills when they might have been studying.

The HSPD programs have several alumni in the NFL, including Ravens running back Ray Rice and offensive tackle Jared Gaither, Redskins cornerback Kevin Barnes and guard Edwin Williams, Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis, Bills defensive end Aaron Maybin, and Lions wide receiver Derrick Williams.

Of course, it’s very unlikely any of the kids attending the clinic that week in Queens will ever make it to the league. They were frequently reminded of the long odds they face – and that strong character will serve them well in all walks of life.

In his opening speech, Horowitz told the players they were scheduled to have a special visitor three days later: the commissioner himself.

“I hope no issues in the NFL will keep him away,” Horowitz said, a bit ominously.

Nothing kept Goodell away, though he did have to field questions from reporters that evening about Titans quarterback Vince Young, who received a misdemeanor assault citation the previous weekend after a fight at a strip club.

When Goodell spoke to the teens, the strict disciplinarian wasn’t on display. He joked around with the athletes as they peppered him with questions about his job and the league.

“You’re going to have a lot of challenges in life,” Goodell told them. “But how you represent yourself, how you represent your family, how you represent your school, how you may represent the National Guard when you’re wearing that uniform – those are all things that people remember and are watching.

“At every opportunity, make sure you take that opportunity to do things right.”