Only about a dozen kids showed up on a Sunday afternoon on Fort Stewart for Georgia Southern University’s fifth football camp in eight days.
Yet it seemed neither low turnout nor a heat index hovering around 115 degrees dampened the spirits of those who took part. The camp was free to kids of soldiers and the first of what organizers hope becomes an annual tradition.
It didn’t go unappreciated.
“This is nice of them,” said Spc. Denise Heath, who watched with her husband, Staff Sgt. Keith Heath, while their sons Lance, Javin, Jordan and Jabari went through drills at a Youth Sports Complex football field. “We’re always looking for something for our kids to do; anything outdoors. We really appreciate them doing this.”
Georgia Southern football coach Jeff Monken said the camp is a way to give back the military, though it initially began as a way to connect with kids in the university’s backyard.
“We really tried to do a camp on our campus where we could give back to the Bulloch County community,” he said. “We offered the camp so that kids who were on the free or reduced-lunch program could come for free. In two years, nobody took advantage of that. Not one kid.”
Rather than give up, Monken, who has several relatives who have served in the military and has also spent time as an assistant at the Naval Academy under former GSU coach Paul Johnson, decided to relocate the camp.
“The idea we came up with was to come down here to Fort Stewart and have a free camp for any son or daughter of active duty servicemen or women here at Fort Stewart,” Monken said. “It’s a chance for us to give something to these kids whose parents give so much to us. It’s a chance for them to come out and experience Georgia Southern football, and hopefully we can build some relationships along the way.”
This is the second time in less than a year that Monken has been on Fort Stewart. At Christmas, he brought players to visit soldiers who had been wounded in battle. Sponsored by Southern Eagle Distributors and Southern Pigskin, the trip “was a great project for us,” Monken said.
“It was great for our kids to be able to thank those folks who’ve made such a huge sacrifice for us,” he said.
Sponsors for the camp made it possible for campers to get free T-shirts and popsicles during breaks while also getting up close teaching from college coaches.
“We were very happy to get involved with this,” said Hinesville Ford general manager Fred Mingledorff, a GSU graduate and Eagles fan who stopped by to check out the camp. “We like to support the military here in Hinesville.”
Like Monken, Mingledorff said the heat may have kept the numbers down, but that didn’t end hopes the camp will come back next year.
“When it’s 100 degrees outside, it’s tough for these young kids to be out here,” Mingledorff said. “But we’re hoping to make it an annual event, and we’re very pleased to be a part of it this year. We will continue to be a part of it in the future.”
Among those who attended Sunday’s camp was 10-year-old Angel Rodriguez, who came with his dad, 1st Sgt. Jose Rodriguez.
Angel Rodriguez said he hoped to “learn a little bit more about football and get better at it.”
His father said Angel plays baseball, basketball and football.
“He does baseball camps and travel baseball,” Jose Rodriguez said. “We were looking to find something else out here to help him work on his football skill set and get him out of the house. We took this opportunity since it was free for him to see if he liked it. Ordinarily, camps come out of the military’s pocket, so them coming out here and doing this for free, we appreciate it.”
Sunday’s camp ended a run that began the previous Saturday, when the Eagles headed up to Mill Creek High School in Atlanta for one-day camp. That was followed by camps at Georgia Southern and Lovejoy High School, which weren’t free. More than 600 players showed up at the camps, which help players get better and also worked as a recruiting tool for Georgia Southern, a Football Championship Series program with six national titles since football was restarted at the school in 1982.
Though Georgia Southern hasn’t won a national title since 2000, the Eagles have made the semifinals in each of the Monken’s first two seasons, and this year are ranked as high as No. 2 in some preseason polls.
But because Georgia Southern runs an option offense — rare in football — the Eagles require different skill sets than most programs, especially on the offensive line, where speed and agility are more important than size. That’s where the camps come in.
“It’s a way for us to evaluate guys doing what we do,” said Brett Gilliland, GSU’s recruiting coordinator and camp director. “It’s always good to be able to work with guys face to face, where you can tell them to go do this and then watch them go do it and see how they perform.”
Gilliland, now in his third season at GSU, estimated that at least half the Eagles’ most recent recruiting class attended a camp. And though Sunday’s camp had nothing to do with recruiting, it was something all the coaches wanted to do, Gilleland said.
“It was coach Monken’s idea to give them a free camp, and we all jumped on board,” Gilleland said. “Obviously, a camp is not very monumental when you look at what they do for us, but we’re doing what we do as a way to say thank you.”
The Eagles also host an annual Military Appreciation Day, which will be Oct. 13 against Southern Conference rival Wofford. Along the way, GSU hopes to continue to build its relationship with the military community, Monken said.
“We’re so appreciative of the great 3rd Infantry Division and what these folks do for our country,” he said. “Anything the good folks here at Fort Stewart would like for us to do or be involved in, in terms of GSU football, we’re open for anything.”