BY JAY GREENBERG
Three hundred and two inner-city football players who likely haven’t been looking much past the next touchdown had their horizons expanded Saturday at Princeton.
Jason Garrett, Coach of the Dallas Cowboys, has never been able to see the point of being a famous football personality without giving something back to the community. So after a morning seven-on-seven mini-tournament of high school players bussed in from places such as Brooklyn, Queens, Philadelphia, New Haven and Asbury Park, Garrett ‘89 and his wife Brill ’88 led a procession of participants in the annual Jason Garrett Starfish Charities Camp on a campus stroll designed to grow legs on these kids’ desires for higher educations.
“That’s the best part of the day,” said Coach Garrett. “The kids look around and say, ‘I’ve never been to a place like this’ and ‘I would like to come to place like this.’
“We’re not doing this to attract them to Princeton, just put a place like Princeton on their radar screens. They come from places that aren’t like this at all, so you try to instill in them a belief they can belong. Hopefully that triggers in their minds they can do the things necessary to come to college and graduate.”
After the walk, when they sat down at McCosh 10 for some life skills lessons, Freddie Santana, alum of the program and -- as a result, Holy Cross University -- was among those who told the kids they shouldn’t sell themselves short.
“I never saw a squirrel or chipmunk until I came here either,” Santana said Saturday. After captaining the Crusaders, becoming All-Patriot League receiver, and going on to Teach for America in Atlanta, he might be the program’s best salesman but hardly is the only one.
Garrett hosted the first of these programs at Giants Stadium 10 years ago when, as backup quarterback for the Giants, he had an in to a free speakers bureau that included Michael Strahan, Tiki Barber and Amani Toomer. This year not only did the Cowboys Coach lasso Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, Garrett hardly had to threaten to cut Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware, Miles Austen and Sean Lee to get them to Princeton for a day of enough star power to makes these kids’ heads spin straight with their own possibilities.
Newark’s Tahir Whitehead, the Lions’ fifth round pick in the 2012 draft from Temple, Florida defensive back Josh Evans from Irvington, NJ, and Brooklyn’s Ishaq Williams, soon to be a freshman at Notre Dame have all been participants. Many of these kids are not talented enough to earn football scholarships. All are smart enough to do college work if they find the motivation.
“The message is ‘there may be nobody in your family who has done this, but you guys can,’” said Garrett. “I always share with them the Starfish story from which I named my foundation 15-16 years ago.
“The valedictorian told this at Brill’s graduation in 1988: Following a storm, a woman comes across a young boy on a beach throwing starfish back into the ocean before the afternoon sun would cause them to dry up and die. The woman asks: ‘why are you doing this? There are millions of starfish on this beach, too many to make for you to make a difference.’
“The young man says: “It will make a difference to this one.’ and throws it in the water.’
“We help many more than just one kid to college each year, but from that one it grows exponentially.”
The Play It Smart Program of the National Football Foundation that spawned and ran these camps has ended, but an initiative that has spurred 95 percent high school gradation rates and 80 percent college enrollments goes on in individual efforts like Garrett’s. Charles Gomes of the NFF assembles the invitation list via the recommendations of high school teachers and administrators who would know best which students are most open to having their minds opened.
“Best-laid plans, the first year we did this at Giants Stadium it rained so hard we had to go inside,” said Garrett. “So we assembled the kids at the bottom of one of the spiral (spectator) ramps while I stood about halfway up.
“I remember being really nervous about their behavior, so I told the coaches to make sure they are listening and behaving. I started with this aggressiveness to my voice and these kids looked up at me completely locked in. It was amazing,”
Ten years later, they may still come for the football, the celebrities, and the lunch but they not only leave with an impression but leave one behind, too. “We have had not one problem with one kid,” said Brill.
Even before Jason’s time with the Giants ended and his coaching career began with the Dolphins, the Garretts thought their program needed a permanent home. Princeton opened up big arms.
“(Former Head Coach) Roger Hughes was great from the beginning,” said Brill Garrett. “(Associate Head Coach) Steve Verbit knows everything and everybody here, don’t know what we would do without him.
“(Head Athletic Trainer) Charlie Thompson and his wife Sandy have been amazing, doing more than just the training stuff we need, helping us with the t-shirts and hats and even the Kettle Chips.
“The whole thing has been an inspiration to all of us. I’m walking behind the kids as we go up through campus, so I hear their comments. They don’t live far away from here but they have never seen trees and buildings like this and they think it’s incredible.
“But what I think is incredible is seeing deserving and underserved kids being so eager when people are trying to help them.”