To the untrained eye, Thursday morning at Ford Field looked like an ordinary summer day. A group of young children were going through football drills and scrimmaging with the kind of exuberance you’d expect from kids during summer playing on the same field of their favorite professional team.
That alone is a treat of its own, but for the Detroit Lions, it’s just another summer. The team has held these kind of youth football camps every summer for the past 16 years.
But as the kids wound down their games and collected their awards—including the “Romeo Okwara Hustle Award” or the “Kerryon Johnson Future Star Award”—there were signs today would be particularly special. Lions linebacker Devon Kennard—in the middle of his “break”—was in attendance. Lions legend Herman Moore was sneaking his way around. Roary was there, and, for some reason not immediately clear to the unsuspecting crowd of coaches and parents, there was a cow mascot near the Ford Field tunnel.
As it turns out, this wasn’t just a youth football camp, it was the second installment of the Detroit Lions’ new “Touchdown in Your Town” initiation, a charitable effort aimed at funding football programs in need around the state. Because in attendance wasn’t just young kids hoping to learn some football skills, but the Loyola High School football team, under the guise of giving the young kids some encouragement and offering a mentorship program.
That’s when the surprises started.
Herman Moore grabbed the mic and turned to the high schoolers with a big smile.
“We’ve asked that you all be out here today, because we have a few special surprises for you today.”
Surprise #1: A $3,000 grant from the United Dairy Industry of Michigan to help hydrate Loyola athletes before and after practice. Hence the cow.
Surprise #2: Another $1,000 from USA Football
Surprise #3: A whopping $10,000 check from the Detroit Lions themselves.
But they didn’t stop there. With the support from Riddell, the high schoolers also got brand new “Speedflex” helmets—the same kind that many Lions players will be sporting in 2019.
The moment left players and coaches alike speechless.
“I was shocked at the first thousand dollars and it just kept coming and it’s amazing,” said Loyola head coach John Callahan. “The fact they’d consider us, we’re just so honored just to be a part of it. I’m all speechless, to tell you the truth.”
Getting funding for a football program is not as easy as it sounds. While games tickets and concessions help, a lot of needy programs rely on fundraiser after fundraiser, and a lot of times it’s still not enough to properly fund a program. Football equipment is expensive and goes through plenty of wear and tear.
“We beg and steal for dollars and everything else for our program,” Callahan said. “To have this and for the kids, for the things we need, it’s tremendous. It’s tremendous.”
And it’s not just the equipment this money will be going towards. Sometimes the budget is stretched so thin that essential things—like a balanced meal—go by the wayside.
“A lot of it will probably go to food for the kids,” Callahan said. “We spend 50 bucks a week on peanut butter and jelly right now, so this will help out just so they have something to eat. Pre-game meals, everything and all that stuff. It’ll go to good purposes.”
Herman Moore, who has been part of Lions initiatives for almost as long as he’s been out of the league, knows the struggle some football programs have, and knows the kind of relief these grants can offer.
“Look at the excitement of the coaches, and it looks like a deep sigh of relief and a burden that comes off them,” Moore said. “So it’s those small things you take notice of that you know are going to make a big difference.”
Senior Director of Community Relations & Detroit Lions Charities Jen McCollum said this was just the beginning of the Lions’ newest efforts to expand and support youth football programs. Though this year they are working with teams they already have relationships with, the hope is that this program will continue to get bigger every year, expanding well beyond the scope of the local Detroit area.
“We tend to focus our efforts on Detroit, because it’s our hometown, but we really do care deeply about kids all across the state,” McCollum said.
And they’ve already lived up to that promise. Last week, they kicked off Touchdown in Your Town way up in Gaylord, Michigan—well over 200 miles away from Detroit. There are a few more schools planned for the summer, but they want to keep it a secret for obvious reasons.
While emphasizing youth football is nothing new for any charitable events in the NFL, there was a feeling that this was something new and unique. This was an event inside an event inside an event. A youth football camp. A mentorship program for high school kids. And, of course, the generous grants in the form of oversized checks and snazzy new helmets. It turns out the Lions setting an example across the NFL.
“What I found out, in the entire NFL, this is the premier camp for all the teams,” Callahan said. “This is the prototype.”