Players receive instruction during practice at for the Middle School Bowl Games Series in Canton, Ohio. (Photo via Lacey Nix)
Thursday marked another step toward Saturday’s Middle School Bowl Games as all of the teams went through a morning practice on Walsh University fields. It’s been a rewarding week so far for the athletes who have learned from many great coaches from around the country. The athletes have worked hard as they get ready to take the field Saturday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The next generation of outstanding football players are getting the experience of a lifetime this week.
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“It's been a great week thus far for both the athletes and our country,” said Alan Popadines, Middle School Manager for the U.S. National Team. “They're putting in a ton of work and really working their tails off. They could be anywhere else in the world right now, but they're in Canton, Ohio with USA Football. That speaks volumes about their dedication to their craft.”
When you think about the word dedication, it doesn’t only apply to the players, but also to the many coaches who have gathered here in Canton to get these kids ready for a game in a very short amount of time. The coaches put the athletes through their first practice Tuesday and then four days later they will compete on the gridiron while also representing the United States.
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In just a few days, the many high school and coaches on hand have evaluated players, assembled teams, put the athletes through a series of position-related drills, installed a game plan, and also spent time teaching and correcting any mistakes made in a very constructive manner. While it was disappointing that only one of three scrimmages planned for Thursday afternoon and evening was played because of the weather, it’s been a great week of work thanks to the efforts of these coaches.
“Impressed, proud and thankful doesn't begin to describe how we feel about the coaches here in Canton this week,” Popadines said. “The coaches are the backbone of this program. Like anything in life, without quality coaches and quality leadership, everything else will cave. They're giving up time away from their programs and families all to be here and coach the next wave of football players.”
Players get reps during practice at the Middle School Bowl Games Series in Canton, Ohio (Photo via Peter Schwartz)
With my son Bradley participating in the event this week, I’ve been playing the dual role of blogger and parent here in Canton. While my eyes have predominantly been on him, I’ve watched a lot of the other players closely while also interacting with many parents from around the country. It’s evident how hard the coaches are working and in turn the kids are responding. They’re distributing the reps fairly, and it’s really been a feel-good atmosphere all the way around.
The offensive units have been playing an up-tempo style that has been fun to watch, and on the defensive side of the ball there have been some tremendous plays made in practice and that should add up to three exciting games Saturday. While the games are the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae, this whole week has been extremely beneficial to all of the players as they prepare for this season, whether it be for their youth club or their middle school team.
“Everybody makes a big deal of game day, as they should, but what makes this week so special is everything they're doing in the days leading up to the game,” Popadines said. “It's the meals the guys are eating together in the cafeteria, the team meetings and most importantly the friendships and bonds they're making. These kids are playing the game they love, in the country we all love and making memories they'll be able to tell their kids about.”
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Bradley is having the time of his life. He’s played youth tackle football for the last eight years and he’s experienced many memorable moments, but this week has been special for him and our entire family. Not only has he had a smile on his face all week, but I’ve also noticed the same from other players and the parents.
Speaking of players and parents who are proud to be a part of this week’s event, we have the story of Caleb Martin, who is playing for the U-14 Stripes team this week. Caleb, as well as his younger brother Kaiden, has participated in USA Football programs in the past and his story is rather unique.
Caleb Martin takes his inhaler during a break from practice Wednesday at the U.S. National Team's Middle School Bowl Games practice in Canton, Ohio. (Photo via Lacey Nix)
Caleb is asthmatic, but that hasn’t stopped him from playing the sport that he loves. He qualified for the Middle School Bowl Games Series by attending a National Team Regional event in Indianapolis.
“It was absolutely freezing the second day,” said his mother, Lacey Nix. “It was brutal on the receivers and tight ends’ hands, but Caleb (who plays tight end) pulled it off. He worked hard this spring to condition himself for this week.”
The night before Caleb and his mom left for Canton, he had a terrible asthma attack and he almost had to go to the emergency room. Thankfully, he was able to make the trip and be here in Ohio. Earlier this week, Caleb had an asthma attack during practice, but the coaching staff and trainers did a great job taking care of him.
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“Toward the end of Tuesday’s first practice, Caleb had a serious asthma attack,” Nix said. It was so severe that I had to take him back to the hotel to recover and try different medicines. The trainers were wonderful on the field and really helpful in trying to get him help. Caleb’s coaches came over to see if they could help and were completely understanding when he needed to leave.”
Caleb had another serious asthma attack on Wednesday, but was much better Thursday and was able to show off his skills on the field. Given everything he has gone through, including a growth plate injury in his knee that requires him to spend at least 10 minutes before any practice stretching it to minimize the pain, Caleb has persevered and continues to play football.
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“Like most parents at this event, I am beyond proud of Caleb,” Nix said. “I’m especially proud that he’s never let anything stand in the way of his dream.”
Caleb comes from a pretty special football family, as both of his parents are Heads Up Footballcertified for the last five years. His father, Reggie, is also a site safety director and since Heads Up tackling was implemented in their program, the results have been phenomenal.
“We’ve had no concussions on the field,” said Nix. “This is extremely important to us, and not just for our own kids. We work in the inner city and have seen football save so many kids who needed an outlet.”
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Saturday, Lacey will watch from the stands as her son Caleb, who has fought through his asthma issues to be a football player, play in a game in an NFL stadium wearing “USA” on his jersey and helmet. Needless to say, it’s going to be a very special moment for Caleb’s family.
“His journey to this game has been full of obstacles,” Nix said. “So many other people might have quit or let it get the best of them, but Caleb just keeps fighting.”
It’s been a great week for all the athletes here in Canton, and we haven’t even played the games yet!
Peter Schwartz is a sports anchor for the CBS Sports Radio Network, FOX News Headlines 24/7 and WCBS 880 Radio in New York. His son, Bradley, is playing in the Canton Classic on Saturday. Schwartz will write a blog every day this week leading up to Saturday’s Middle School Bowl Games.