Military Appreciation

Rookies Reach Out

By Steve Liewer

For a while yesterday, Andrew Hayslip stood together with Atlanta Falcons rookie Keith Zinger on a golf course turned gridiron in Carlsbad.

Hayslip, a youth-football player who hopes for a career as a writer, and Zinger, a tight end last year for the national champion Louisiana State University Tigers, share a bond deeper than knowing how to snag a well-thrown spiral.

Hayslip's father, Thomas, is a Navy corpsman serving with a Camp Pendleton unit that deployed to Iraq for the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and will soon leave for the war again. Zinger's father serves as a soldier in an armored unit at Fort Knox in Kentucky.

Both understand what it's like to miss dads who are away serving their country. The pair crossed paths at a first-of-its-kind event that paired National Football League rookies with military youngsters for an afternoon of flag football.

“It's a lot of fun to be out here with these military kids. . . . I know what they've been through,” said Zinger, 23, who was born in a military hospital in Germany while his father was stationed there.

“You've got to stuff up the manhood and take care of your little siblings,” said Hayslip, 14, who has a 12-year-old brother and a 9-year-old sister. “You've got to watch over them – just like your dad would.”

The league's 252 first-year players are in town for the 2008 NFL Rookie Symposium at the La Costa Resort and Spa. During each symposium, newbies are schooled by veterans on a range of issues such as finances, family matters, keys to NFL success and life after football.

“They're learning everything it takes to be a rookie in the NFL,” said Samantha Rapoport, the league's manager of youth football.

Yesterday's session of flag football and autograph signing with more than 200 Camp Pendleton children ages 5 to 16 offered a happy break from classroom work in a darkened auditorium.

“They try to throw everything at us up there,” Caleb Campbell, a linebacker drafted by the Detroit Lions, said during a break from the flag football. “This is much more relaxed.”

Like Zinger, Campbell's feet are planted firmly in both the football and military worlds. He played for Army for four years and was commissioned as a second lieutenant May 31.

If he makes the Lions roster, Campbell said, he'll be allowed to serve part time as a recruiter in Detroit while he plays football. After two years, he'll have to choose between a career in the Army and the NFL.

“Being part of the military and knowing people overseas, I'm really grateful to be” connecting with the Camp Pendleton children, Campbell said.

In the past, rookies have conducted instructional camps for many groups of youngsters during their symposiums. But the league had never reached out to the military until now.

Yesterday's two games of flag football might not have happened if Alison DeGroot, who works for the NFL and helps run the symposium, didn't eavesdrop on a conversation while preparing for this year's event.

“I was on a train, and I overheard a woman talking about her son getting transferred to Camp Pendleton,” DeGroot said. “I thought, 'Camp Pendleton! That's 30 miles from San Diego, where we'll be.'”

She got in touch with Cindy Farnum, a middle-school teacher who is married to a Camp Pendleton Marine and runs a small charity supporting troops. Farnum easily recruited children through her contacts on the base.
“Within a week and a half, I was full,” Farnum said. “I had a waiting list going into today.”

She said the fathers of about half of the children are deployed. Almost all of the rest have seen, or will soon see, a parent go to war.

“They're just like any other kids, but they've got a parent who is brave enough to serve,” said Lawrence Jackson, 22, of Inglewood, a former USC defensive end and a first-round draft choice for the Seattle Seahawks. “It takes a lot of discipline to be a child of someone who is in the military.”

About two dozen parents watched from the sidelines as their youngsters ran and shouted and high-fived with the rookies. NFL staff members took photographs and recorded video so they could create DVDs for the deployed parents.
“I'm just jealous I can't play,” said Cheyune Glover, 29, who accompanied two of her four children, 12-year-old Anthony and 10-year-old Asiana, to the camp. “They're going to sleep so well tonight!”

The kids couldn't get enough.

“You forget everything else. You're thinking about fun,” Andrew Hayslip said.

“It just makes me happy,” said Sean Sweet, 14, a friend of Hayslip's whose Marine dad just returned from Iraq.

The flag-football event was extra special for Chris Draft, a 10-year linebacker with the St. Louis Rams and a leader of the symposium. Draft was born 32 years ago while his father served a tour at Camp Pendleton.

His family settled in the Orange County city of Placentia, where he excelled on the football field in high school before earning college all-conference honors – and a degree in economics – at Stanford.

“I was so excited” about meeting the children, Draft said. “We try to change the reality a little bit for these kids. They get to hang out with (NFL) rookies and forget about things for a while.”

For Lt. Col. Bill Swan, though, the event was all about forming new and lasting memories. He showed up to watch his son, Brandon, participate in the camp. He will deploy to Iraq soon.

“You're gone for a significant portion of their lives. Stuff like this is really important,” Swan said. “They're never going to forget this.”