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WADSWORTH -- A year ago today, my dateline was Hartford, Conn. I was working for the Browns, and my assignment was to cover the Eric Mangini Football Camp in Mangini's hometown.
You probably remember. It became the most infamous youth football camp in the history of youth football camps when Mangini brought along the entire Browns' rookie class -- via bus ride from Cleveland to Hartford -- to "volunteer" at the camp. As if any of the rookies were going to decline the invitation.
At least one of them complained privately, and their agents got to the media and threw a public fit. Mangini was already under scrutiny for some of his methods in becoming the sole emperor in Berea, and this act was like throwing gas on the fire to columnists everywhere.
I was on that bus, too, and so was Mangini for the ride home after the flood of negative publicity. He later admitted that the bus ride was something he wished he'd handled differently, but the "Mangini Cruiser" jokes continued.
A year later, I don't miss that bus. But I did feel I needed to take a minute to make sure the right part of this story gets at least a little attention.
There was no bus ride this year, but another camp is taking place today. From what I've gathered via computer and cellular device, it's the biggest one yet with nearly 1,000 participants. And that's the shame of last year's controversy, that a truly good deed that helps kids who could use a little boost was overshadowed.
Bulkeley High, Mangini's alma mater, is a city school. Most of the campers are city kids; boxing trainer and analyst Teddy Atlas charters a bus for New York City kids, many of whom have never been out of the city. Kids from all over New England come to compete and learn, many on "scholarship" to cover the $45 fee. Outstanding campers are awarded scholarships to camps on college campuses this summer, the kind of camps that lead to college scholarships.
This is not Mangini writing a check or making a token appearance to wave and sign autographs in his hometown. This is an all-out effort to make sure kids get high-level coaching -- they run the same drills the Browns do in practice -- as well as the chance to be taught by NFL coaches, players, scouts, successful high school coaches and a variety of people. Mangini has more than 120 coaching volunteers including a few of his current players, most of his current assistants, a bunch of former Jets players and coaches of various backgrounds.
Last year, Jets head coach Rex Ryan worked and taught at a station like he was a high school coach or anyone else there. Jets' tight end Dustin Keller addressed the group not to draw attention to himself, but to talk about work ethic and sacrifice and making the most of every opportunity -- on the field, in the classroom, everywhere -- that might present itself.
There are stories about kids who have never even been to a high school football game ending up with tickets to an NFL game through a current player they met at the camp. There are stories about wide-eyed kids coming back each year at this time to tell their coaches about how they used a certain skill or technique and showed great improvement the previous fall. There are kids who have the talent to play football at a high level but need a little polish, a little nurturing, maybe even a positive role model to reach the next level. Negative headlines aside, this is a place they get it.
Camp Mangini takes place over a sprawling area of park land and school property; picture one of those huge sports complexes you see in Strongsville or Kent or Jackson, and picture it in an urban setting. But picture every inch of it being used by kids having the time of their lives, and picture enough volunteers who coordinate every detail (just the way Mangini likes it) and keep it running like clockwork. It's an impressive operation.
About the only person who didn't have a specific job last year was me. And if you know me you know this is rare, but I was so impressed by how hard everyone was working and how well put together the event was that before long I was running errands, checking on the back fields
and driving a golf cart all over Hartford. At one point I drove Mangini across the park to watch a 7-on-7 game. He asked if I'd had enough time on the bus ride to write a book.
I told him I'd written three. He almost even laughed. But I really did come away both impressed and inspired, and wishing it had been in the news for the right reasons. Even the guys on the bus acknowledged they'd gotten more out of it than they'd ever thought possible.
Spending 20 hours and 20 minutes on the bus over two days (not that I was counting) wasn't the worst thing that's ever happened to me. Or the rookies. Besides, when else was multi-millionaire Alex Mack going to eat lunch at a Central Pennsylvania truck stop?
It was an experience. Most importantly, it was an amazing experience for a bunch of kids who probably won't ever forget it --and maybe a couple who someday will pay it forward.