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Kids learn more than football at Sean Jones' camp

Sean Jones, the 6-foot-8 defensive end for the Houston Oilers, towered over a group of kids like a skyscraper amid wood-framed houses.

His imposing 270-pound physique was the one so many dejected quarterbacks had seen when they looked up from the hard turf of an NFL stadium, shaking loose the cobwebs after a Jones sack.

But the kids at the Sean Jones Football Camp didn't see an intimidator when they looked up at the 10-year NFL veteran. They saw a friend whose simple yet important goal was to give them some positive role models and a few words of encouragement.

"We want to start nurturing positive reinforcement, positive imagery and positive affirmations early; a true grass-roots approach," said Jones, who cut his honeymoon short by a day to attend this year's camp. "At this stage, when they're 7, 8, 9, 10 years old, they're looking for direction. I think it's very important we take a grass-roots approach to molding any kind of mind."

Jones, 30, is a member of a group called the Athletes and Artists Foundation of Roots. The group includes such athletes as Marcus Allen and Bubba McDowell, and artists such as jazz musician George Howard. As an extension of the group, Jones has conducted his camp in Tampa for four years after starting his first camp in New Jersey in 1987.

Working with nearly 50 youths at the Mary Help of Christians School, Jones tries to impart wisdom while delivering basic fundamentals during his five-day camp. The group includes some disadvantaged kids from Operation PAR's Beta Program in St. Petersburg, and from Clearwater's Condon Gardens. Jones pays for kids who can't afford the program.

After Thursday's lunch, Jones stood at the front of a large patio while the kids sat at picnic tables, watching him pace back and forth and hanging on each word.

Behind him were three other NFL players: Lawrence Dawsey and Darrell Fullington of the Bucs, and Lorenzo White of the Oilers.

"I say to people like Lorenzo White, "Yo, I need some players to come by the camp,' and he said, "Fine, what time do you need me there?' " Jones said. "It's not like, "Let me call your agent, he'll get back to my agent and we'll negotiate what you'll pay me.'

"It's not, "Let me have my people call your people ,' then you get these bottled speeches. The kids are so much smarter than people think they are, they can discern. We don't try to fool them, we try to be as honest as possible."

The post-lunch conversation Thursday involved setting goals and doing what it takes to achieve those goals.

Jones asked each kid to state a goal, and most of them said they wanted to be a football player or a basketball player. One said he wanted to be an engineer, another said he simply wanted to finish high school. Each seemed to state the goal with a quiet voice and an apparent lack of certainty.

"How you gonna be a football player or be an engineer or whatever you want to do if you say, "I think I want to do this?' " Jones said, emulating the kids by putting his head down and kicking at imaginary sand. "That's not positive, that's not being self-assured. Speak up; make people believe in you; believe in yourself.

"When people talk to you, the first thing you have to learn is to sit up straight and say what you feel."

The lessons continued. Dawsey and White and Fullington stressed the value of education and staying drug-free, and the realization that not everyone is meant to be a professional football player.

The advice wasn't particularly unique, but the sources made it special.

"It's really important for the first-year kids because they may have never heard it before," said Seminole's Kyle Cocita, an 11-year-old who had been at the camp for four years. "It means more coming from them (NFL players) because they're really successful, and they've done something big by becoming pro athletes."

After the speeches, the floor was opened to questions. The banter between the kids and players was joyous and comical and sometimes serious. Fullington, a six-year veteran who played at the University of Miami, hugged one of the kids when he said he wanted to go to UM.

Fullington teased Dawsey, a former FSU receiver, about the Hurricanes' four-year string of victories against the Seminoles.

Jones told the players about how he played running back in high school, and White jumped up and said, "Do you really believe this big, old guy played running back?"

The kids laughed and said "Noooo."

"It's a chance of a lifetime for a lot of these kids," Jones said of the meeting with the players. "I know it would have been for me when I was growing up.

"I don't think you hear enough about that (players' work with kids). All you hear about is players trying not to be role models and Michael Jordan gambling and all that madness that has nothing to do with anything."

Jones said he doesn't see anything special about what he does, and that his motivation simply comes from how he was raised. Others beg to differ.

Tampa's Lee Davis saw the impact Jones had on his kids when they attended Jones' first camp in his home state of New Jersey. He was so impressed, he convinced Jones to move the camp to Tampa nearly five years ago.

"He's just unbelievable," Davis said. "He doesn't mince any words; he tells it just like it is with a positive, upbeat attitude."

The work of the camp four years ago is beginning to pay off. Jones said he has seen a couple of kids turn their grades around and improve their attitudes, and he believes his contact played a role in the reversal.

Jones' only reward is seeing the positive impact he has on kids, and that's all he asks for.

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