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The Journal Gazette

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Former Harding star and NFL player Trai Essex directs Nicklaus Fine, 11, with a drill during the Trai Essex Youth Camp at New Haven High School on Monday.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Former Harding star and NFL player Trai Essex celebrates with campers during the Trai Essex Youth Camp at New Haven High School on Monday.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017 1:00 am

Essex puts emphasis on fun, academics at football camp

Austin Candor | The Journal Gazette

NEW HAVEN – When it comes to football, stressing fundamentals while having fun isn't the easiest task.

But that's exactly what former NFL offensive lineman Trai Essex tackled in his two-day youth camp at New Haven High School that ended Monday.

Despite playing at both the collegiate and professional levels, Essex is still quick in remembering his days as a kid with big football dreams.

“I was one of them. I'm not that far removed,” the 34-year old said. “I still remember the joys of just being outside and throwing the football around and catching it.”

While the two-day event had to battle Andrew Luck's Change the Play camp for attention along with 90-degree weather, more than 150 young athletes came ready to listen, learn, and show the two-time Super Bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers their abilities.

In its second year, the camp was created to bring the Harding and New Haven communities together. As a Harding graduate himself, Essex was an easy choice to lead the charge.

But Essex doesn't place the focus on himself. New Haven players and coaches assist the Fort Wayne native in hopes of giving kids a glimpse of what the future holds.

“It makes (kids) see the atmosphere and us in our jerseys. It makes them want to do what we're doing,” New Haven senior quarterback Bryan Sexton said of the camp. “(Trai) told me that it takes a lot to play big, to play at the upper levels. To learn that and hear it from someone who's actually done it actually helped me out a lot.”

The camp itself is broken into seven sessions, each focusing on a specific aspect of the game, including tackling, receiving, and overall agility. Essex draws from the football camps attended as a kid. Back then, it was Snider graduate and Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson leading the drills.

“(Woodson) did it big, he did it nice,” Essex said, smiling. “He really got down to the basics of what football is: running, catching, and just getting outside on the field. I mean, what kid doesn't want to be outside?”

This year, Essex and the Bulldogs' coaching staff incorporated a new segment: academics.

The camp held a session for parents Sunday, where a number of guest speakers that included Essex's father talked about the importance of an education in playing at the next level.

“Sometimes the academic discussion, when we have it in ninth and 10th grade, it's almost too late for some of those kids. Bad habits have already settled in,” New Haven head coach Jim Rowland explained.

“To drive that message home early and often, I think is very key.”

Essex couldn't agree more, stressing how academics could take a player to the top of his game and beyond.

“Everybody's capable of getting that education and trying their best in the classroom. Football is a privilege,” he said. “If you take care of (grades), you can go so much further. You can accomplish any goal that you want to.”