CONCORD, N.C. – Even as they waited for the arrival of two Carolina Panthers, the kids from the Stonewall Jackson Youth Development Center kept their game faces on.
Hardly an expression. Not much energy or excitement. A large group of teenagers just standing in place, all wearing grey shirts, black shorts and black shoes with Velcro straps.
But after defensive linemen Kawann Short and Mario Addison came out and started coaching them through a series of football drill stations, those hardened exteriors wore off.
They no longer seemed like “committed youths” from a detention facility. They were kids in a park acting like kids.
“Kids need someone to believe in,” juvenile officer Allen Avery said. “You have to establish a trust in order for them to believe in you. They know when you’re not sincere. But once you gain that trust, they’ll listen and give you that respect.”
That’s exactly what happened Monday at Stonewall Jackson.
Through drills at a nearby park, lunch and an intimate discussion session, Short and Addison connected with kids working to get their lives back on track.
That work is extremely difficult, especially in the neighborhoods these kids are from and the history of gang involvement they carry with them.
Both Short and Addison can relate.
Short, who grew up in East Chicago, Ind., told the group about his close encounters with drive-by shootings and the persistence of violence. He spoke about “friends” putting him in troubling situations. He asked the kids who they wanted to become and what they wanted to do with their lives. One said join the military. Another wants to become an engineer. Another hopes to run an auto shop.
"You a millionaire, right?" a kid asked Short. "I’m trying to be like you."
Short smiled. He talked about the commitment it required to eventually land a big NFL contract and earn financial freedom for his family. Wearing a gold watch, gold necklace and diamond earrings, Short recalled missing nights out with friends to instead focus on his career.
A few feet away, Addison was telling his story to another group. He described the rough living conditions in Birmingham, Ala. He talked about being in fourth grade and living without hot water or electricity.
One kid then started to share his own story. He was brought to Stonewall Jackson after breaking into a house – a result of hanging with the wrong crowd.
“I was new in town and was trying to fit in,” he said. “Just wanted to prove myself or whatever.”
He continued to open up. A kid with no father figure, he talked about the death of his older sister, a tragic event that forever changed him. “When my sister died,” he said, “a part of me went with her.”
More stories were shared while Addison and Short intently listened.
Then Addison recalled hearing that someone close to him had been shot dead over a $100 dispute.
That prompted a kid in his group to share that his cousin had recently been killed. Shot in the back.
“I’m lucky I was here and wasn’t with him,” he said. “Probably would have been me, too.”
The dialogue could have continued for hours.
Afterward, a 16-year-old named Nyjajuan said the discussion with the players was more impactful than he expected.
“They’re good people and they really motivated me. They kept it real,” he said. “They had their struggles coming from the same kind of place I came from.”
And it was what he learned about the other kids that really hit home.
“When I listened to the stories, I was like, I never knew that,” Nyjajuan said. “It really touched me. It had my heart pumping.”
The hope for everyone involved is that Monday’s visit has staying power, that it resonates while the kids are in the facility and once they’re out.
But “repeaters” are all too common with so many negative influences out there waiting.
“Falling back into it -- that’s easy. It’s so easy,” Addison said. “It’s hard to find a job and try to work. Those guys think they aren’t built for that. Their mentality has to change.”
Change doesn’t come easy, but there is hope. At this age, despite bad decisions in their past, opportunity for a better life exists for these kids – as Short and Addison, two shining examples who overcame their neighborhoods, were there to remind them.
“I love hearing young guys’ testimonies, and I love telling them mine. I can relate to everything they’re saying,” Addison said. “That’s a good feeling when you can reach the youth like that.”