Tuesday, July 8, 2008 | University of San Diego quarterback Josh Johnson, a fifth-round draft pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, grips a football and pats it back and forth as a dozen kids surround him last week at the La Costa Resort.

 There’s nothing new about Johnson drawing a crowd of kids. It’s been that way since he grew up in his Oakland neighborhood. Marshawn Lynch, a Buffalo Bills second-year running back and Johnson’s childhood friend, says Johnson was the kid they all followed when he organized playground games.

 And it will be that way again this week on the campus of Oakland Tech, Johnson’s and Lynch’s the high school, when they stage their second annual “Family First Football Camp.”

 Johnson was at La Costa last week along with 252 draft picks as part of the 2008 NFL Rookie Symposium. Most of their time was spent in the classroom learning about life as a pro football player on and off — mostly off — the field.

Ironically and tragically, if the symposium was later this month, the NFL could have used last week’s death of former Chargers safety Terrence Kiel in a single-car crash. His death at age 27 would have been a profound example of excessive spending leading to gambling debts and a guilty plea to felony drug charges resulting from a scheme to ship codeine-based prescription cough syrup back home to Texas for street profits.

“They’re covering everything possible, and they’re covering it more than once,” Johnson said. “The financial advice has been good. You can go through a lot of money real fast and spend it on nothing. You have to adjust to life as an NFL player, but you also have to realize it can be gone like that. You’ve got to be on it now.”

 The youths Johnson worked with were part of a group 200 boys and girls from Camp Pendleton that were bused in by the NFL for a clinic with the rookies. About half of the youths had a parent deployed overseas and another quarter have a parent about to be shipped out.

 “This is wonderful,” said Misty Gersley, whose husband, Shane, was deployed May 4 for duty in Kuwait to support troops in Iraq.

 With her husband away, she was able to bring their three sons — Jacob, 15, Loegan, 12, and Fionn, 8 — to the clinic. The rookies were split into two clinics, but the youths got to spend the afternoon interacting with both sessions.

“It’s a once a lifetime experience for these kids,” Gersley said.

By the end of the week, Johnson could distill information from the NFL Rookie Symposium about football on and off the field and apply it to his youth camp.

Johnson and Lynch were able to start the Family First Football Camp last year as Lynch entered his rookie year as a first-round draft pick. Now Johnson is a full-fledged partner as an NFL quarterback.

“We’ll have more kids this year — about 400 from elementary school age to high school,” Johnson said. “It was a lot of fun last year, and it will be more fun this year. I’m looking forward to it.”

With time, Johnson has considered the idea of opening camps in Tampa, his professional home, and San Diego, his college home. After all, Oakland isn’t the only city with tough neighborhoods battling gang problems.

If you read a disturbing story in the June 30 issue of Sports Illustrated, “How Dreams Die,” you know Oakland’s youth desperately need the influence of people like Johnson and Lynch. Actually, the city needed that kind of intervention many years ago to counteract the despair caused by gangs and random street violence.

The story makes the point that kids no longer see sports as an avenue to escape gangs and violence. Likewise, a reputation that an athlete carried in his neighborhood no longer offers protection from getting caught up in street violence.

“In Oakland, it’s not necessarily gangs, but a lot of small groups in areas where you don’t go,” Johnson said. “Athletes in Oakland have to help do something about it. Too many kids want to be in the streets instead of playing sports. We want to show kids with our camp there is another way.”

Not every kid can make it to the NFL, of course, but Lynch and Johnson are examples of Oakland youths from tough streets earning a college education. Yes, their talent earned them a chance to play college football, but their high school grades gained admittance to prestigious academic institutions such as Cal and USD. 

“Kids see drug dealers with money, so they think that’s where the money is at,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to show them there are other ways by going to school and playing sports.”

Johnson has yet to throw his first NFL pass or earn his first NFL paycheck, but he already has NFL cache as a draft pick. And he’s not waiting to invest it in the rough streets of his hometown.

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

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