The pastor went down the line, asking a class of mostly teenagers when they last saw their fathers. Seven years, said one. Nine, said another. Did the absence affect their lives? "Kind of," one boy said. Pastor Emerson Morris knows better. He knows that they are likely to act out without a father figure, search for role models on the street, and try in vain to win back Dad's attention by becoming a star athlete. He saw it as a PE teacher at Hillsborough County schools and as a district instructor of suspended students. It made him want to redirect the boys to see that sports could help them overcome their backgrounds. It could teach them the values, discipline and life skills their fathers were supposed to provide, boost their self-confidence and keep their attention focused on school.
So Morris, the pastor of Extreme Life Ministries, a year-old church on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in east Tampa, began a summer camp this year for city boys called Y-MO, or Young Men Obey. The name implies following God while also referring to the traits Morris hopes to cultivate: service, humility, grace, submission, respect and love.
Mornings include classroom "character development" work and life-skills lectures. Fitness training follows with workouts Morris developed when he played football at the University of South Florida.
Nine boys have enrolled this summer. Five showed up Monday, where guest lecturer Juli Lewis, youth marketing manager for Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union, gave them money management tips.
Buy an economical car with good gas mileage, she said. Tuck money into a savings account. Make sure you have a backup plan in case your professional football dream fails.
At that, the boys looked at Morris, 32.
A decade ago, he was a promising junior USF defensive end with tangible NFL aspirations. Midway through a September 2001 game, he shattered his leg, derailing his dream and dragging him into a deep depression.
Humbled and feeling like a washout while Miami neighborhood kids he grew up around like Chad Ochocinco and Santana Moss became NFL stars, Morris said he found God.
He earned a criminal justice degree and tried out with the Atlanta Falcons but found ministry his true calling. He became a licensed minister at 25.
Morris looked at Lewis, the lecturer, and nodded.
"That's why I'm here," he said. "You have to have a backup plan."
Morris went to the erase board for the next lesson: the importance of forgiveness. He focused on their absent fathers and told them it's important to forgive their dads — whether they can tell them in person or not — and move on so the boys are not burdened by grudges, worry, anger, disappointment and stress, which can manifest physically.
A sound body and mind is what Morris stresses, and the tail end of Y-MO sessions are spent on the rubber mats in the back of the room. Four stations are set up with cones and aerobic steps, and the teens go through a circuit of exercises including advanced pushups and pullups.
"Full speed," he calls out. "No hesitation."
It's not just physical fitness Morris is promoting during the workouts but discipline and self-esteem, pushing the boys to break personal boundaries.
"Man, I didn't sign up for this," one boy said, exhausted.
But he doesn't stop.
These are the attitude shifts Morris hopes for. The pastor and certified personal fitness trainer, who is married and has a daughter, plans to turn Y-MO into an after-school program in the fall that will be funded by his church and donations. He hopes to attract more than 50 fatherless or adrift teens and young adults who want discipline and structure.
"I want to be a better person," Andrew Walker, 17, a Gaither High School student, said after Monday's workout. "This is teaching me to be more respectful, listen to authority, respect my aunt."
He hopes to play football in college. His end goal is not the NFL or celebrity, but a life of service. He said he wants to join the military.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.