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.
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 email@example.com