For years, there weren’t many options for low-income middle school students who wanted to play football. But a program sponsored by the National Football League has worked to fill that void.
Since 1998, when it was launched, the NFL’s Junior Player Development program has grown to serve more than 21,000 middle school boys at 160 sites nationwide, for free. And middle schoolers who once participated in the program are now showing up on college and NFL team rosters.
“We happen to believe that tackle football gives kids an opportunity to learn teamwork, discipline, time management, and commitment,” said Ray Anderson, the executive vice president of football operations for the New York City-based professional football league, which has 32 teams nationwide.
“[The program] is particularly aimed to areas of our society that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford the rental of the fields and the equipment necessary,” he said. “It’s a chance to get on the football field free of charge and get instruction not just in the fundamentals of football, but in life-skill areas as well.”
The program provides a curriculum—including videotapes and outlines of drills—for 12 football practices, to be held within a three-week period.
Many middle schools do not provide football teams for students, said Mr. Anderson.
“Some … kids have actually earned scholarships and gone on to play college [and professional football],” he said, citing the Baltimore Ravens’ Jared Gaither as an example.
Vince Ahearn, the head coach for the 1,320-student Frederick High School’s football team in Frederick, Md., became a site director for the JPD program last year.
“The nice thing about this program is that it’s all geared towards fundamentals and technique,” he said. “It also really stresses all the key character elements and sportsmanship.”
Each week, participants in the program focus on a different life skill, such as responsibility, self-control, or teamwork.
“With the character piece and the stress on fundamentals, [this program] is not only for the kids—it’s for the coaches, too,” Mr. Ahearn said.
A version of this article appeared in the December 19, 2007 edition of Education Week