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Fostering hope in underprivileged football players

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A team of Winnipeg teenage football players pose with Carolina Panther QB Cam Newton (back row fourth from right) following a game last weekend at the American national 7 on 7 touch football championships in Florida. Recruit Ready partner and coach Brad Black is back row second from left. The Winnipeg team was the youngest at the event and had one win in six games, including an opening game loss to a team coached by Newton.

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A team of Winnipeg teenage football players pose with Carolina Panther QB Cam Newton (back row fourth from right) following a game last weekend at the American national 7 on 7 touch football championships in Florida. Recruit Ready partner and coach Brad Black is back row second from left. The Winnipeg team was the youngest at the event and had one win in six games, including an opening game loss to a team coached by Newton.

You don't have to be a football fan to appreciate this story.

It's not really about football.

Although, that's what I thought when I phoned Brad Black early Wednesday morning to talk about the trip to Florida he and his coaches from Recruit Ready had taken some of the city's most talented teenage players on last weekend.

The event was the IMG 7v7 National Championships -- touch football with guys built to tackle -- where Brad and the kids had ESPN television cameras in their faces because the first team they met was coached by Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

You have to be a football fan to appreciate that.

When I finally reached Brad to debrief him on the trip, the 32-year-old former University of Manitoba Bison receiver and kick-return specialist said he had to run.

He mentioned something about preparing to go to his foster kid's grad."Can I talk to you at 11?" he asked.

I was so focused on the football story, and Brad was in such a hurry, I neglected to ask him the obvious question: Why did someone as young as Brad have a foster kid graduating high school?

As Brad's story unfolded during a series of catch-him-while-you-can interviews, the "why" began to become apparent.

We should start with the football part and the creation of Recruit Ready. The name describes the company's basic mission to train and showcase young players. Brad had been part of a group of former players who had been doing off-season coaching and conditioning for the Bisons when he and football buddy Brad Atkinson came up with the idea of recruiting young high school kids willing to pay the price -- both financially and through effort -- and getting them ready for university football and maybe even scholarships.

Many are now on scholarships, or soon will be.

But Brad wasn't about to let kids with talent and desire be excluded because they couldn't afford the few hundred dollars to enrol.

"A lot of kids don't have the direction, or the parental involvement," Brad said.

Yet they can be among the best athletes in the city. "We don't want to leave those kids behind."

So they don't.

Brad estimates about 15 of the 70 or so players in the program are from homes that can't afford to send their boys to a football school.

Where does that Recruit Ready core principle come from?

Well, that's where the story of the foster kid who graduated Wednesday starts to come in.

A year before coming up with the Recruit Ready concept, Brad started full time as a counsellor at the Manitoba Youth Centre where he now operates an exercise program for those kids.

Shortly after starting at the MYC, he and another buddy from football, Riley Shogan, opened two homes for foster boys.

Brad and Riley live part time at the homes and have hired more former football players as respite workers.

Why such a consuming commitment to kids?

"It just started with wanting to help kids with football," Brad said.

And he kept running with it.

I was still searching for their "why."

Why start Recruit Ready, his now-part-time work at the youth centre and his more full-time devotion to foster kids?

Brad talks about those kids needing positive male role models and he and his crew of former football players, many of them ex-pros like Brad, know how to model that.

Plus, Brad says, he's still just a big kid at heart.

"And I just get to hang out with kids. Nothing could be better."

The thing about football the average fan often misses is at its "grab grass and growl" roots level it's really about teaching life lessons.

The fundamental values of dedication, discipline and helping your teammates win.

That's what Brad and his teammates are really trying to teach his football players, foster kids and so-called young offenders.

It's not really being Recruit Ready. It's about being life-ready. The boys couldn't ask for better role models than Brad Black and his boys.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 26, 2014 B1

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Updated on Thursday, June 26, 2014 at 8:43 AM CDT: adds photo

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