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NFL-sponsored camp at East Hall developing high school players
Two-day event uses football to instruct players on pressing issues to keep them safe
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East Hall’s Kevin Thompson grimaces while doing push ups during the Atlanta Falcons Player Development Camp Thursday afternoon. Several other area teams were also at the camp.

Veteran Atlanta Falcons linebacker Stephen Nicholas struck just the right tone for the audience of high school football players and their participating coaches Thursday during the NFL’s High School Player Development Camp at East Hall.

After a day of serious seminars geared toward teenage football players in the 21st century, just shy of 500 football players from nine northeast Georgia schools heard Nichols wrap up the first of the two-day camp in Gainesville talking about commitment, character and making good choices.

“If this sport helps you get a college education, play it,” Nicholas said in a straightforward voice with a constant sweat rolling down his forehead in the Vikings basketball gym. “If playing football helps you get to college to get an education, then you go on to be a doctor, a lawyer or open a business; that’s a good thing.”

East Hall coach Bryan Gray is spearheading the event for the fourth year with the assistance of the NFL and National Guard. He says preparing for this event takes extensive planning to line up guest speakers on topics ranging from internet safety to academic success, while also giving players a chance to compete in afternoon non-contact drills specific to their position.

The Vikings coach says that all NFL franchises host such camps during the summer in their specific state. Running such a comprehensive experience for players comes at an extensive cost, probably just north of $20,000 says Gray, but well worth it to give football players some insight — although uncomfortable to hear at times — about issues that if not handled appropriately have steep consequences.

“Some of the talks had a shock factor, then we bring them out here for a couple hours and wear them out on the field,” East Hall’s coach said. “We try to leave them with a good feeling.”

Vikings senior lineman J.D. Holloway said the talk that resonated the most was hearing about the predatory nature that permeates the internet.

In the cyber age, there are those that are going to take advantage of young and impressionable people, male and female. His teammate Tyler Thomas added that guest lecturers made it clear that anything you do on the internet or through cell phones leaves a permanent fingerprint and remains on the record.

Thomas says they also heard talks about texting and cyber bullying before getting to run out on the field to enjoy some teenage bravado with different sets of physical challenges and games.

“We were told make sure not to say anything on the internet that you wouldn’t say in real life,” Holloway added.

Helping Gray orchestrate the event included the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, National Guard, Atlanta Falcons community relations manager Chris Millman and NFL representative and former Falcons legend Billy ‘White Shoes’ Johnson.

“This is a good medium to conduct an event such as this with the National Guard and the NFL,” Monroe Area offensive coordinator Jeremy Holder said.

After the heavy talks from speakers were complete, linemen gathered down on the practice field behind the high school for a chance to garner some bragging rights.

They did everything from flipping tires and dragging sleds to jumping into the ‘bull pull’ for a one-on-one, tug-of-war type event, as the remaining players all gathered on the side to cheer on their teammates.

To wrap it all up, Nicholas took a generally serious tone with players about what the sacrifices it takes to play football at a high level, while also showing the doors that the game can open up post graduation. He said success is a decision players have to make for themselves.

“We’ve heard character education lessons that all kids need to hear,” Madison County assistant coach Carey Metts said.

Along with East Hall, participating schools included Chestatee, Madison County, Monroe Area, Pickens, East Jackson, Fannin County and Union County.

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