REGGIE HAYES: Former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Trai Essex’s youth football camp provides valuable straight talk for Fort Wayne parents

Trai Essex gives instruction at a past New Haven football camp. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)

The most important part of Trai Essex’s football camp will be the straight talk for those willing to listen.

The camp, open to all Fort Wayne third- through eighth-graders, runs Sunday and Monday evenings at the Harding Junior High School field.

The straight talk is 6 p.m. Sunday. That’s when Essex, a former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman, and others will talk about what it takes to play college football. The emphasis will be a sometimes overlooked truth: Grades are essential.

Those grades need to start when a student enters high school.

“It’s vital not only just for the parents, but for the kids themselves,” New Haven coach Jimmy Linn said. “So many kids have this grand illusion – if you’re good at sports, (colleges) will find a way to get you in – and that’s just not the case.”

RELATED STORY: Trai Essex expands football game to all Fort Wayne youth

This will be the third year for the Trai Essex/New Haven High School camp, which relocated to Harding due to the construction of the turf field at New Haven. The camp will be run by Essex and New Haven football coaches, along with AWP Sports staff.

One of the common reality checks happens when a talented football player reaches his junior year and realizes he didn’t put in the academic work during his freshman and sophomore years. Now, college recruiters are interested, but the student’s academic record is not nearly as sparkling as his 40-yard dash time and his ability to run, catch or throw. Same goes for the big guys in the trenches, of course.

New Haven assistant coach Tom Neuenschwander said it’s a way-too-common predicament.

“Over the years, a lot of kids come in their junior or senior year and say, ‘Hey, coach, I want to play in college,’ ” Neuenschwander said. “We look at their grades and say, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t get you in.’ ”

Pushing the academic track has been a priority for New Haven principal Anna Murphy, who will be among the speakers at the Sunday night session. The session is open to parents and athletes from Grades 3-12 in all sports. Other speakers include Trai Essex; Trai’s father Donald Essex; former New Haven and Ball State receiver Jordan Hogue; and Jordan’s parents Jerome and MyLien Hogue.

Trai Essex was a standout multi-sport athlete at Harding High School who went on to success at Northwestern University and in the NFL, primarily with the Steelers.

Essex and his family understood the importance of academics in order for him to be prepared for the high standards to be recruited by and admitted to Northwestern.

“Trai is the poster child for what it takes to get into a great academic situation,” Linn said. “His father will be there to talk about the support his parents had to give to his academic career.”

Jordan Hogue is finishing up his accounting degree at Ball State and will be part of Linn’s assistant coaching staff this fall, working with outside receivers.

He’s another example of a player who had his academic house in order.

“We’ve had so many good athletes in the past at New Haven who have struggled with grades and it’s tough to get into college,” Linn said. “We want to focus on how to get those grades up, get parents on board early. Grades have to be the first priority. Be a student-athlete before just an athlete.”

About 250 students participated in Essex’s camp last year when it was focused on the New Haven community. Now that he’s expanded the scope to include the entire Fort Wayne area, pre-registrations are up. Preregistration is available at the online site. Linn expects as many as 350 campers to participate. The camp is 6-8:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday.

The college information night had about 60 players’ parents attend a year ago, Neuenschwander said.

Parents of junior-high school athletes ought to take the short time out of their schedules to listen. After all, the expertise includes a player who reached the Big Ten and the NFL and the father who pushed him academically to be ready for the opportunity.

The session, like the camp, is free. The advice could prove invaluable.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.

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