Former Florida football player Terry Jackson, longtime Gainesville resident Albert E. White and 18 other black community members had been meeting for nearly six months grappling with the issue of rising crime and dropout rates among black youth.
As members of the African-American Accountability Alliance, the group was searching for a way to reach youngsters at an early age and provide a positive influence. But developing a concrete plan proved difficult until Jackson mentioned the concept to Florida football coach Urban Meyer.
"We met with Coach Meyer and it immediately got on the fast track," said White, who has mentored children for 25 years.
The plan has become reality. Fifteen at-risk middle school boys have each been paired with one Florida football player and one black male community leader (and Meyer) to form a mentoring program that organizers hope will help the athletes and the children.
"Me being a former football player, when I did work with kids, I know it affects change in you," Jackson, UF's director of player and community relations, said. "I can't go tell you what you need to be doing right and I'm out here acting the fool. Hopefully, it's double-sided. For these kids it's great, and then for these athletes it's going to be a good thing for them too because they see they've got to straighten up and do some of the good things they are telling these kids to do."
"Athletes can do some crazy things, but they don't want to be a failure to these kids," White added. "They want to set a good example. They can't talk to the kids about good conduct and then don't toe the line."
To select the participants, each Alachua County middle school provided a list of five children based on specific guidelines. Each candidate was interviewed to make a final determination. The players and youth were joined in a unique ceremony at the Florida Touchdown Terrace on March 12.
"We did like a draft. They came up, selected a football player from the hat," said Jackson, a running back on UF's 1996 national championship team. "Then we all signed contracts together talking about what we were going to be doing and the expectations we have for each other."
Among the players are tight end Aaron Hernandez; backup quarterback Cameron Newton; running backs Brandon James, Chris Rainey and Emmanuel Moody; safety Joe Haden; and offensive linemen John Curtis and Michael and Maurkice Pouncey. Eventually, they hope to expand. Meyer said he could have chosen veterans such as quarterback Tim Tebow, but he wanted younger players who'll benefit from the discipline involved in keeping up with their young partners.
"To have Tim or some of these other kids, I don't know how much (it would help)," Meyer said. "But some of the young kids we picked, they need that kind of responsibility. It's been a real positive. All these young people need to learn to make the right choices. So what better way than using the role models in this town, which are our football players, and let them get with some at-risk kids? So it's been tremendous."
The community leaders meet every Tuesday afternoon with the youths, and have weekly meetings with Meyer.
"We have our planning meetings at 6 a.m.," White said. "Coaches have long days and they don't sleep, so Coach Meyer likes to meet early. It's a butt-kicker, but we are dedicated. We are going to do everything we can to help them not become a statistic."
There have been cookouts after football practice, movie sessions and service projects. The boys are currently reading the book 12 Things Every Black Boy Should Know and will have multiple discussions over the next several months. They talk at least once weekly with the players. Improvement in classwork, citizenship and conduct is required. Any rule violation is brought before a council, including the athletes.
"We're trying to set a good example for them," Maurkice Pouncey, a sophomore this fall, said. "We talk and try to give them advice. It's been a lot of fun."
Alachua police Officer Darry Lloyd understands how important a mentoring program can be. Retired Gainesville police Capt. Tony Jones has been Lloyd's mentor since he was 14 and is also a part of this program.
"I'm from Gainesville and if you look at the local crime statistics in Alachua County, the numbers for black male youth are steadily increasing, they're more involved in violent crimes and they have a high dropout rate," Lloyd said. "The ultimate goal of our program is to make positive community leaders who are going to be an asset"
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3389.