"Keep your eye on the ball!"
Inside the walls of cavernous Yankee Stadium, laughter mixed with instruction echoed all around. As a young boy no more than 10 years old hauled in a pass from a Rutgers football player twice his size and sprinted toward the scarlet-painted end zone, the hulking collegians looking on couldn't contain their excitement.
"Take it to the crib!"
The member of the Bronx Colts youth football program did just that, scampering into the end zone before performing a quick touchdown dance that had the student-athletes combusting with laughter and nearly falling down with delight.
It was a moment of elation and pure happiness - a feeling that, for many of those young kids, can be tough to come by when they're back in their neighborhoods.
There were similar instances of jubilation as the Rutgers Scarlet Knights held a clinic on Dec. 27, 2013, for local youth football players at Yankee Stadium, one of many community events that have become an annual tradition leading up to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.
"It's a blessing to be in the position that we're in and give back to kids who look up to us or don't have the same opportunities we have," said Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova, who was born in nearby Washington Heights and grew up in New Jersey rooting for Derek Jeter and the Yankees. "We put smiles on their faces, but it probably does more
for us than anything."
Leroy Freeman has been coaching kids in the Bronx for more than 16 years. He has seen too many young people fall prey to the streets. Football is a way to keep some of them on the right track, and the opportunity to participate in a clinic at Yankee Stadium with Division I players gave his kids something to aspire to.
"I give thanks to the Yankees for helping these kids every year by doing this," said the man they call "Coach Free." "Everyyear, they look forward to this. This is a helpful thing for me for these kids."
Upon arriving at the Stadium, the youth players shook hands with the Scarlet Knights, then took a knee to receive some words of encouragement from Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood, who stressed the importance of working hard in the classroom as well as on the field.
"When you're a young person and you're in elementary school, I don't know if you really have an appreciation for all the hard work that these guys had to do in high school and currently have to do in college to get a chance to play Division I football," Flood said. "As a studentathlete and as a college football player, your greatest reward is going to be the degree you earn, and that's ultimately what's going to carry you through life."
After watching a short video on the center-field video board that highlighted some of the Scarlet Knights' academic achievements, the youth players were sent in groups of eight to different locations on the field, where they spent a few minutes receiving instruction and running through drills before rotating to the next station.
Derrick Nelson, a redshirt freshman on Rutgers' offensive line, helped with some passing drills. "No. 55 over here, he's getting real serious, pointing me out and everything; he was ready to go," Nelson said jokingly. "But giving back to these kids here is definitely nice. I feel like these kids are getting one heck of a chance. I'm sure they look up to us just as much as we're glad to see them here."
The smiles on the kids' faces when they completed their turns spoke volumes, but the reactions of their mentors were just as heartwarming.
"I think you see it in our players' faces and how much fun they're having - this is a thrill for us," Flood said. "It's a chance to give back, and I think they see a lot of themselves in the faces of these young people as they're running around on the field today.
"This is one of the events that surrounds a bowl game that makes it more than just a football game. It's really an experience and hopefully something that improves the community also." Practicing some of the fundamentals of the game with college players the day before their nationally televised game against Notre Dame on that very field was an experience that the young football players will never forget. But the real lesson being driven home was that to accomplish great things, school must come first.
"It motivates them and gives them a little inspiration about college academics," Freeman said. "For the [Rutgers] coach to actually talk to them and let them know the importance of academics, it goes a long way.
"The whole idea is to keep these kids off the street."