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Saturday, Nov. 4, 2006 | The Chargers’ Brandon McKinney, a 6-foot-2, 324-pound defensive lineman, blocked out the sun with his broad frame as he took the field last week at the Southcrest Recreation Center. His audience was 80-some kids learning to play football for the first time with pads and helmets through Junior Player Development, an NFL-sponsored program.

He wore a gray San Diego Chargers T-shirt that was big enough to hang as a tent. To the kids, ages 12-to-14, he was larger than life. They didn’t care that, as a member of the Chargers’ practice squad, he has yet to play in a game.

What excited them is McKinney, an undrafted free agent out of Michigan State, was the closest contact they’ve experienced with an NFL player.

“Do you live in a mansion?” one asked.

“What kind of car do you have?” another said.

McKinney smiled. He told them he’s not a star player with a big contract and that there is more to playing football than big houses and fancy cars.

“I’ve always had to work hard to compete,” McKinney told them. “I was able to get a scholarship to Michigan State, but I still had to work hard when I got there and I have to keep working hard and learning here.”

McKinney said later he wasn’t as surprised by the questions about mansions and cars as he was by the realization that many kids growing up in American neighborhoods don’t have the opportunities to learn football he enjoyed in Dayton, Ohio.

“I was fortunate,” McKinney said. “I lived in a suburb of Dayton, and they provided everything kids needed. I’ve been playing football since I was 7 years old. Football has gotten me to where I am.”

But in San Diego, some road blocks to youth football programs include the expense of registration fees and equipment and weight limits. Or it can be something as simple as kids not knowing how to put on equipment and not wanting to embarrass themselves.

The NFL, recognizing it is losing future athletes to basketball and other sports that are cheaper to play, is stepping up efforts to promote youth football programs. For every high school football team lacking quick kids to play running back or defensive back, you can find those kids playing point guard on basketball teams or school yards.

The Hall of Champions is my day job, and the HOC’s Champions Sports Academy partnered with the NFL’s JPD this year for its first effort at a free camp for kids to learn football with helmets and pads.

There were 12 practices in the six-week camp that was directed by Tom Bass, the long-time NFL assistant coach, including serving the Chargers as a defensive coordinator under Don Coryell.

The camp was at the Southcrest Recreation Center, a haven for kids in a tough neighborhood. The San Diego Police Department did its part to aid the program’s success by providing a patrol car presence at the Southcrest practices.

“The primary thing is this is an after-school activity that gets kids off the streets,” said Stephen Hayes, executive director of Be A Champion, a community youth organization. “The kids want to be outdoors, but some of these communities are not a nice place to be. I think the kids here enjoy the camaraderie of being in a structured environment. They were out here two days a week, and they wished there was another day.”

One of the eye-catching athletes was Joshua Jackson, who at age 14 is 6-2, 180 pounds. He said he plans to play football at Lincoln High when the re-built campus opens next year.

“I was too big for Pop Warner, and I’d probably be playing basketball right now if it wasn’t for this program,” Jackson said. “Football wasn’t important to me.”

As the kids arrived at Southcrest for practice and began strapping on pads, Christian Quiroz, a ninth grader at Memorial Academy in Barrio Logan, was waving a report card to show his coaches.

Quiroz started the six-week camp ranked 26th, or last, in his class. He spoke with excitement as she showed a report card that listed him as ranked No. 2 after a six-week grading period. He went from F’s to all A’s.

“One of the coaches said he didn’t play football because he had bad grades in school,” Quiroz said. “They made me understand if I work hard in practice, I can work hard in school, too.”

Two other speakers the players heard from at an earlier practice were Mike and Don Carey, two of the NFL’s elite game referees you see on Sundays. They were so impressed with the JPD program they volunteered to pay the Pop Warner registration fees for six JPD graduates.

“The NFL saw there was a big drop off of kids playing football,” Bass said. “The NFL recognizes you can’t wait until high school to interest kids. You don’t see middle school programs anymore. If you wait until high school, you’re going to miss a lot of kids.”

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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