Former New England Patriot starting safety and current NFL free agent James Ihedigbo returned to his hometown of Amherst Saturday morning and held a four-hour football camp for two local high schools.
About 25 students from Amherst Regional High School and Springfield High School of Commerce joined the University of Massachusetts alumnus at Groff Park, where he had collected many memories during his childhood.
“[This is] an opportunity for me to give back,” said Ihedigbo. “Not just an opportunity to give back to Massachusetts and UMass community, but really an opportunity to give back to these kids.”
The Association of Diversity in Sport, a student-run organization from UMass coordinated the event, and sought out Ihedigbo because of his football success and relationship with the area.
“Since James went to Amherst High and UMass, it’s just really cool to bring him back for this,” said ADS President Melcolm Ruffin. “When we got in touch with him, he fell in love with the idea, and since then he’s helped us to promote, get schools involved and talk to sponsors to help out with the event.”
According to the ADS website, the organization was founded in 2008, and promotes “diversity of thought in the realm of sports.”
It has grown from a minority-based group, to a board of over 70 diverse members.
Ihedigbo met members from the two teams on the lawn at about 10:30 a.m. to introduce himself and give a pep talk.
After giving some background information about his life, Ihedigbo told the group that they were about to start some drills, and asked them, “How do you guys feel right now?”
They responded robotically, “Fired up.”
“No, no, no,” Ihedigbo responded before hunching over and shouting at the top of his lungs repeatedly, “How do you feel?”
At this, the group exchanged smiles and collectively shouted back each time, “Fired Up”
Ihedigbo then walked the players through about 10 minutes of stretches before beginning a set of cardio and agility drills, which got the teens’ blood pumping.
Over the course of the event, Ihedigbo gave numerous motivational speeches, with the hope that at least one person would walk away with a new light in his eyes.
“I just want the kids to have a great time and learn something new, whether it be a certain technique or fundamental of the game,” said Ihedigbo.
“I’m a firm believer that I’m not perfect; I’m not a role model because that’s the job of a parent,” said the 2006 I-AA All American Ihedigbo. “But [after this], if any of them can say ‘OK he’s been successful because he had the passion to chase after his dreams.’ If they can apply that work ethic to whatever they want to do, then that’s awesome. If one of them can [come out of this] with that type of mentality, then my job is done.”
High School of Commerce’s head coach Tyrone Mathis, who played with and coached Ihedigbo’s younger brother, expressed his gratitude toward Ihedigbo, who took time out of his schedule to give back to the kids of the western Massachusetts community.
“Just to have someone of Mr. Ihedigbo’s caliber to come out here and do something like this is a great thing,” said Mathis. “I just hope [my players] understand Mr. Ihedigbo’s story on how much hard work it took for him to get to the level that he’s at; it doesn’t happen overnight.”
After splitting the teams up into groups of seven, the kids scrimmaged for close to two hours, as Ihedigbo stood by cheering them on, and celebrated with them when they scored.
Hassan Graham, a linebacker and fullback for the High School of Commerce, returned an interception for a touchdown in one of the scrimmages, and received praise from Ihedigbo.
“It makes me feel confident when I’m out there with him watching me and him saying ‘good luck’ and giving me a heads up on how to do something,” said Graham. “It just makes me feel like I got it; it gives me a better hope.”
Shaki Holines, a linebacker, tight end and teammate of Graham’s pulled in a game-winning touchdown for his team on Saturday, and celebrated by bumping bodies with Ihedigbo.
“It’s good to be out here with him knowing that he went to a local college and made it to the NFL,” said Holines. “He’s doing what we dream of doing, and he’s doing it every day for a living.”
The day ended with a cookout at the park, as Ihedigbo handed out gift certificates to Antonio’s and Bueno y Sano to some of the day’s top performers. He also handed out t-shirts to all of the participants, which displayed the event on the front, and listed some of the local sponsors, including Wings and Bueno y Sano, on the back.
The ADS members then rewarded Ihedigbo with a check for around $900, which was raised by the group.
Ihedigbo plans to give all of his proceeds to Hope Africa, an organization that he founded in 2007, a year after he graduated from UMass.
“It’s a great cause,” said Ihedigbo. “We’re raising money to help students in Africa so that they can get scholarships to universities around the country.”
Ihedigbo is currently a free agent, but he hopes to return to the Patriots for the 2012 season, and plans to return to Amherst next year for another spring football invitational event.
Taylor Snow can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at MDC_Snow.