Northeast Times

Football players are heading to the Hall of Fame

Cut­line: Keita Crespina (fourth from left) and Ben John­stone (third from right) are co-dir­ect­ors of the Phil­adelphia Foot­ball Skills Academy (PF­SA), which provides free on and off the field in­struc­tion for high school foot­ball play­ers. Sev­en area play­ers will be re­war­ded with a free trip to Can­ton, Ohio, site of the Pro Foot­ball Hall of Fame this week­end (Photo cour­tesy ted­sil­ary.com)

This week­end, Keita Crespina will be re­ward­ing the Hall of Fame ef­forts of the mem­bers of his Phil­adelphia Foot­ball Skills Academy (PF­SA) with a Hall of Fame gift.

Lit­er­ally.

Since the fri­gid winter months, Crespina, a former Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln High School standout who played at Temple Uni­versity and for the Phil­adelphia Soul, co-dir­ect­or Ben John­stone (also a Temple foot­ball alum) and a hand­ful of as­sor­ted vo­lun­teers have hos­ted free, 2 1/2-hour in­struc­tion­al foot­ball workouts on Sunday morn­ings for any high school play­er who wanted to show up.

It star­ted with just a hand­ful of de­fens­ive backs work­ing out at a field on Temple’s cam­pus. Then Crespina no­ticed a need for wide re­ceiv­ers for the de­fens­ive backs to cov­er. And then after his arm began to hurt from throw­ing the ball so much, he brought in some quar­ter­backs. Turnout soon mush­roomed, and Crespina had play­ers from every po­s­i­tion show­ing up for the workouts, which were sub­sequently moved from Temple to the Frank­ford Char­gers’ youth-foot­ball field in East Frank­ford to ac­com­mod­ate the large num­ber of par­ti­cipants.

“It’s been un­be­liev­able,” said Crespina, a former de­fens­ive co­ordin­at­or un­der Ron Co­hen at George Wash­ing­ton High School who’s now an as­sist­ant at St. Joseph’s Prep. “We star­ted out with four guys, then ten, then twenty…next thing I know, I’ve got 150 kids there. I couldn’t be­lieve it, and the re­sponse from the kids has been amaz­ing. A lot of them have got­ten bet­ter, and we’ve been able to ment­or them.”

As a thank-you for all of their hard work and ef­fort — some­times in be­low freez­ing and swel­ter­ingly hot con­di­tions — sev­en play­ers, in­clud­ing Frank­ford’s quar­ter­back-wide re­ceiv­er tan­dem of Tim Di­Gior­gio and Renz “Rodeo” Compton as well as Ro­man Cath­ol­ic wideout Wil­li­am Fuller (a Frank­ford res­id­ent and Penn State com­mit) will get to ex­per­i­ence an all-ac­cess trip this week­end to Can­ton, Ohio, site of the Na­tion­al Foot­ball League’s Hall of Fame.

Thanks to gen­er­ous con­tri­bu­tions from donors and Crespina’s pro­fes­sion­al con­nec­tions, Di­Gior­gio, Compton, Fuller and four oth­ers (Im­hotep Charter’s Ny­eem Thrones, St. Joseph’s Prep’s John Re­id, Arch­bish­op Wood’s Da­mon Brinkley and Ro­man Cath­ol­ic’s John Chaney III — grand­son of le­gendary Temple hoops coach John Chaney) will be on hand for the 2012 Hall of Fame in­duc­tion ce­re­mony on Sat­urday, as well as the NFL’s first pre­season game the fol­low­ing night at Can­ton’s Faw­cett Sta­di­um.

“Like kids com­ing down­stairs on Christ­mas morn­ing see­ing all their toys on the floor,” Crespina said when asked about the play­ers’ re­ac­tions to the trip. “This really is a once-in-a-life­time-type trip, and it’s been over­whelm­ing and hum­bling for the kids. They’re good kids, and to be able to help in­spire them and provide them with something they oth­er­wise nev­er had a chance to ex­per­i­ence…it’s a bless­ing.”

Ad­ded Di­Gior­gio: “It’s the first NFL game I’ve ever been to, and I’m honored I was picked to go. It makes me feel really spe­cial. I’m look­ing for­ward to meet­ing any­one that I can get ad­vice from on how to con­duct my busi­ness on and off the field. They’ve all been through what I want to go through. I’ve learned that there are young kids that look up to me, and I want to con­tin­ue to de­vel­op as a lead­er and learn from the guys I’ll be meet­ing.”

Be­cause of the ded­ic­a­tion to their foot­ball tal­ents, as well as ad­mir­able per­form­ances in the classroom and off the field, a num­ber of high-pro­file people have lent their as­sist­ance to make the Can­ton trip pos­sible. Frank­ford grad Jahri Evans, an All-Pro of­fens­ive line­man for the New Or­leans Saints, has provided game tick­ets to Sunday’s con­test between the Saints and Ari­zona Car­din­als. Car­din­als star wide re­ceiv­er Larry Fitzger­ald, a close friend of Eagles run­ning back Le­Sean Mc­Coy (also in­stru­ment­al to the cause), has helped fa­cil­it­ate meet-and-greet ar­range­ments and auto­graph ses­sions between the PF­SA kids and pro play­ers. Money and mem­or­ab­il­ia dona­tions from loc­al guys in the NFL, in­clud­ing Wash­ing­ton grad Jameel Mc­Clain, have helped raise enough cash to en­sure the trip won’t cost any of the PF­SA kids a cent.

“We’re for­tu­nate enough to have con­nec­tions to some NFL guys, as well as people at the high school and col­lege level that have donated their time and money,” Crespina said. “One of our goals was to help get some of these kids off the streets and in­to a foot­ball uni­form to show them that if they work harder to­ward their goals, then there will be a big world out there for them, much big­ger than the four-block ra­di­us they’re used to in their neigh­bor­hoods.”

In work­ing with the PF­SA kids, the main goal of Crespina, John­stone and oth­er academy vo­lun­teers (in­clud­ing Frank­ford as­sist­ant Rasheed Muhammad) was to show kids that they can get to the highest level if they choose.

“I want them to know that they all won’t go pro, but it is pos­sible if that’s what they want,” Crespina said. “But also, un­less you’re a top-five draft pick, you’re go­ing to need a job to fall back on down the line. That’s where the school and edu­ca­tion as­pect of this come in. In ad­di­tion to im­prov­ing as foot­ball play­ers, we want them to really ap­ply them­selves in school and fo­cus on be­ing good cit­izens. I tell them all the time, ‘Don’t let foot­ball use you…you use foot­ball.’”

This past Sunday’s workout, which fea­tured roughly 125 play­ers (the num­ber of­ten pushed 200, with kids from Philly, Delaware, New Jer­sey and New York schools), was the last for 2012 as the up­com­ing sea­son ap­proaches. But that’s not all that’s planned for the PF­SA, as this fall will bring SAT prep and life skills ses­sions; not only that, but Crespina’s long-term goals for the academy in­clude start­ing an after-school pro­gram for ath­letes of all sports, a place for them to come to work on their games and stud­ies, as well as a safe place to eat and hang out with like-minded peers.

“We plan on do­ing it un­til the wheels fall off,” Crespina said. “We hope these cur­rent guys come back and vo­lun­teer one day so they can tell new kids the stor­ies of their own hard­ships and how they over­came them to at­tain their goals.

“We want to in­still val­ues in them, and foot­ball is a great way to teach a boy how to be a man,” he con­tin­ued. “It’s the ul­ti­mate team sport and it forces you to be ac­count­able, take own­er­ship of your ac­tions, face fears, work to­ward a com­mon goal and do things you don’t ne­ces­sar­ily want to do. Those kinds of things carry you through life and a life bey­ond foot­ball. A lot of these kids are great ath­letes, but they get lost in the shuffle be­cause they can’t read. We want to push them hard in the classroom and push them to be­come more than just foot­ball play­ers.”

One guy who has es­pe­cially em­braced the workouts is Frank­ford’s Di­Gior­gio, who in his ju­ni­or sea­son threw for 2,357 yards and 30 touch­downs, both Pub­lic League re­cords. But the Pi­on­eers’ sea­son ended pre­ma­turely at the hands of Wash­ing­ton in the league title game, and Di­Gior­gio’s par­ti­cip­a­tion in the PF­SA shows he is a man on a mis­sion.

“Not a day goes by where I don’t think about that game,” the seni­or-to-be said. “We know we have to for­get about it, but we also use it as mo­tiv­a­tion. Renz and I work out al­most every day, and we ex­pect to be pretty sol­id…a good foot­ball team that ex­pects to win that Pub­lic League cham­pi­on­ship game.”

The en­tire ex­per­i­ence has been hum­bling for Crespina, who also can’t wait for the com­ing week­end.

“I’m ec­stat­ic about the whole thing,” he said. “It’s all about these kids and the ex­per­i­ences they take from it. I’m grown and still learn from them every day. They teach me to stay humble and they’re count­ing on me and look­ing up to me. It’s win-win for us both.”

Sports ed­it­or Ed Mor­rone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or em­or­rone@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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