ANGOLA – Anthony Spencer could easily give his extra time and money to a football camp in Dallas, where he plays for the Cowboys. The choices there would be almost endless.
“Football is life down in Texas,” Spencer said.
But Fort Wayne football is home for Spencer.
“I just want to come up here and give these kids an opportunity to see what they can get out of going to school,” Spencer said. “You don't have to end up in the NFL, but you can get that scholarship to play football and go to college.”
Spencer, a graduate of Bishop Luers High School, returned to his hometown as the primary sponsor of the R.A.S. Football Camp on Saturday at Trine University. The camp, put on by AWP (a group founded by another Luers grad, Michael Ledo), allowed high school players to learn from college coaches. It also allowed them to be seen by some of those college coaches. Great example: Columbia City's Jared Murphy tweeted that he received his first two college scholarship offers after the camp from Saint Francis and Tiffin.
“This is something I definitely didn't have coming up,” Spencer said. “If I did, I would have been more exposed to the environment around coaches and would have had a better feel for what goes on around the college atmosphere.”
Spencer earned a scholarship and played at Purdue University before being drafted by the Cowboys.
He's also another example of an NFL player from Fort Wayne giving back to his hometown. We've been blessed by that, starting with Hall of Fame defensive back Rod Woodson, who ran a camp here for many years. Since then, Fort Wayne-raised players such as Jason Fabini, Jason Baker, Spencer and Bernard Pollard have made it a point to contribute back to their roots.
We've been spoiled a bit by the fact our Fort Wayne NFL players always seem to give back. And it certainly extends to other sports, as Seattle Mariners manager Eric Wedge and recently retired NBA center Brad Miller have shown.
Credit their character, instilled by their parents and those who have mentored them growing up.
Spencer, along with his mother Tonia Creech, has established Fort Wayne Next Level, a not-for-profit organization that emphasizes academics to budding athletes and other students. They offer support, tutoring and all around quality guidance.
Next Level is natural to work in conjunction with the folks at AWP (Athletes With Purpose), who stress character along with muscle.
“All the kids we have right now in the Next Level program are doing tremendously well,” Spencer said. “They've all got Bs or better on their report cards. We try to keep them in a good environment and keep them in the right direction.”
Spencer enlisted a couple of his NFL friends, fellow Cowboys linebacker Victor Butler and Detroit Lions defensive end Cliff Avril, to join him at the R.A.S. camp. R.A.S., incidentally, stands for Redefining Athletic Success, another arm of the AWP program.
Spencer traveled to Fort Wayne in between organized team activities with the Cowboys. The Cowboys recently placed the franchise tag on Spencer, and he signed his franchise tender, putting him in a one-year deal worth an estimated $8.8 million.
The pressure to play of the Cowboys is like few other places. It's Super Bowl or bust every season.
“You really wouldn't want it to be any other way,” Spencer said. “You wouldn't want to be somewhere where it's OK to lose a game or OK not to be at your best. It drives you to be better. It drives you to have success.”
Spencer said he has worked hard on the details of his game as he has progressed over the years. It's his emphasis on the little things that help him continue to become a better player.
That was one of the themes of the R.A.S. camp – pointing out that athletes need to strive to be their best in everything they do. They need to pursue excellence in all areas, not just on the field. Ledo and other organizers of the camp brought in motivational speaker Eric Thomas, “The Hip Hop Preacher,” to further get that point across.
“If I would have grown up with a little more exposure to the college coaches and this type of atmosphere, it would have made me a better player then,” Spencer said. “(Recruiting) has changed a lot. I want to make sure the Midwest is getting the same look as everybody else.”
The R.A.S camp is expected to be an annual event, and will likely grow in size and impact as it moves forward. Bishop Luers linebacker Jaylon Smith announced at the end of camp he will be accepting a scholarship offer from Notre Dame. He won't be the only Fort Wayne player at the camp who ends up playing on Saturdays down the road.
Maybe some will play on Sundays someday, too.
Here's hoping they follow the tradition of Spencer in never forgetting where it all started.