EDMOND — A few boys were gathered in front of an oversized team photograph that hung on the wall of the Edmond Santa Fe football locker room. Looking up at the photo, one of the boys asked, “Hey, Reggie, where are you?”
Reggie Smith, now a defensive back for the San Francisco 49ers, pointed to himself in the 2003 Wolves' team picture, and the boys went back to their own conversation during a break Saturday morning at Smith's Rookie 31 football camp.
It was a simple moment, but a tangible one. The type of moment that blurs the line between superstar professional athlete and regular guy.
Moments like that seem to be occurring all across the state with relative frequency these days, partly because our state is currently enjoying one of the greatest generations of athletic talent on the professional level that it has ever seen.
And partly because those gifted athletes are also men of great character.
Guys like Smith, Wes Welker, Gerald McCoy, Sam Bradford, and several more. They've all left our state to find success, and they all come back to give their time and their money to help the young people of Oklahoma.
C.J. Harrison has felt the impact of these athletes' actions on a personal level. The 12-year-old attends the Boys and Girls Club of Oklahoma County, which draws regular visits from several pro athletes, including Welker, Adrian Peterson, Darnell Jackson, Tommie Harris and many Oklahoma City Thunder players.
“It's really special to see them, because they want to come back and do something for us,” Harrison said. “They could just go make their money and go on, but they come back and show young kids that we can do the same thing.
“They're busy working out and doing other things, but they take time to come here because they like kids, and that inspires you to be just like them. They want to help you be a better person.”
Even the simplest actions have an impact.
Welker's foundation has made donations to several schools around the Oklahoma City area, including Douglass High School, which received funds for new weights and video equipment. But he also visits the school on occasion to meet with Trojan players, and he has brought them in to help with his youth football camp.
“To me, it means that he sees something in us that we might not even see in ourselves,” said Douglass senior-to-be O'Sha Clark. “He's helping us get better at what we're trying to be.
“It's great to see, because it lets you know that there are NFL players who like to come back and do stuff for their community. They're not just out there for themselves.”
Other pro athletes like Blake Griffin, Antonio Smith and Chris Chamberlain have given of themselves. Brandon Weeden — a former pro baseball player and now Oklahoma State's starting quarterback — was among the group of players teaching at the Rookie 31 camp on Saturday.
The uniqueness of this generation of athletes goes beyond gifts — whether it be those they possess or those they give.
Being a professional athlete makes them special. Giving time or money makes them generous. But their overall actions make them good people.
“It's nice to have kids come back and remember their roots,” said Putnam City North football coach Bob Wilson, who has had visits from Bradford and Deji Karim, two former Panthers who are both in the NFL now. “But the thing that makes them special is that they're tremendous role models.
“Kids don't have enough role models these days, but you can point at those guys and say, ‘Look at the way they are living their lives. They stayed out of trouble and focused on school and worked hard to get there.' That's important for our kids to see.”
These athletes could easily keep their community outreach work in their new hometowns of St. Louis or Boston or Los Angeles or Houston. But they choose to come back to Oklahoma.
McCoy's first gift was to his alma mater, Southeast High School, and he has another planned for the Spartan football team. But then he plans to give something to every school in the Oklahoma City school district — simply because it's his home.
“I love Oklahoma City,” McCoy said. “This is my home. Everything needs a base. If the base isn't there, it's not gonna work. So this is my base. I just love my city, so anything I can do to help, I'm gonna do.
“I believe God blesses us so that we can bless others. He has given me a huge opportunity to do something for my city.”
The impact a professional athlete's personal interaction can have on a child is hard to measure. And through their generosity, pro athletes are more accessible to a young athlete now than they've ever been in Oklahoma City.
“It's cool to see someone like that just hanging out playing with kids,” said Douglass linebacker Jas'Sen Stoner. “At his camp, (Welker) was playing quarterback, just going from group to group playing with all the kids. So it was real cool to walk around and talk to him.
“I enjoy seeing people like that give back. I think anybody who makes it to that level and knows how hard it is to get there should want to give back and help the younger people. If I ever get to that level, I want to be like a Wes Welker — give back to the program and give somebody else a chance to succeed.”
The NBA requires its players to do a certain amount of community service work, but the Oklahoma City Thunder go beyond their requirements, even in the middle of the season, when they take children Christmas shopping.
Kevin Durant holds his own basketball camp, and the team hosts multiple camps and other events for youth around the metro throughout the year.
“It's awesome that all these people give back to our community,” said A.J. Johnson, a unit director for the Boys and Girls Club of Oklahoma County
“It says volumes about the character of these people who are all million-dollar players. They understand how to give back and the importance of it. They inspire young people and teach them life lessons.”
When an athlete transcends the boundary between a SportsCenter highlight and the guy sitting next to you eating lunch at a football camp, the impact becomes far more real.
“It shows kids that pro athletes are real people, everyday people,” Johnson said. “It means a lot to a kid when it becomes, ‘Hey, this guy I watch on TV is right here, and he's trying to make me a better person.
“It takes them a long way just to have a positive adult in their lives trying to inspire them to do something positive.”
The impact of giving back
Here's a look at what some professional athletes have done to give back to Oklahoma recently:
* Sam Bradford and Chris Chamberlain, St. Louis Rams: Each has made appearances at metro-area schools as part of the NFL's “Play 60” initiative to help children stay active and eat healthy.
* Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers: Sold the car he jumped over in winning the NBA's Slam Dunk contest and donated the money to Stand Up To Cancer in honor of Wilson Holloway, his friend and high school teammate who died Feb. 16 from Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
* Darnell Jackson, Sacramento Kings: Makes regular appearances at the Boys and Girls Club of Oklahoma County, which he attended as a child.
* Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Donated four bass drums and new uniforms to the band at Southeast High School, and also plans to make future donations to the Southeast football team as well as other schools around Oklahoma City.
* Reggie Smith, San Francisco 49ers: Smith held his Rookie 31 football camp, along with an auction and bowling tournament to raise money for his foundation, which uses the funds for special projects at Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as a scholarship fund.
* Wes Welker, New England Patriots: Welker's foundation has provided a new basketball gym floor for Harding Charter Prep, filled in a swimming pool that had become a hazard at Taft Middle School, and provided a new weight room for the Boys and Girls Club of Oklahoma County, among other donations.
By Scott Wright
In the pros
Recent high-round NFL and NBA draftees from OU, OSU and Tulsa
Sam Bradford — St. Louis Rams, first pick, first round, OU
Gerald McCoy — Tampa Bay Buccaneers, third pick, first round, OU
Trent Williams — Washington Redskins, fourth pick, first round, OU
Russell Okung — Seattle Seahawks, sixth pick, first round, OSU
Jermaine Gresham — Cincinnati Bengals 21st pick, first round, OU
Dez Bryant — Dallas Cowboys 24th pick, first round, OSU
Brandon Pettigrew — Detroit Lions 20th pick, first round, OSU
Phil Loadholt — Minnesota Vikings 54th pick, second round, OU
Chris Lofton — Atlanta Falcons 37th pick, second round, OU
Malcolm Kelly — Washington Redskins 51st pick, second round, OU
Adrian Peterson — Minnesota Vikings 7th pick, first round, OU
Davin Joseph — Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23rd pick, first round, OU
Chris Chester — Baltimore Ravens 56th pick, second round, OU
James Anderson — San Antonio Spurs 20th pick, first round, OSU
Jerome Jordan — Milwaukee Bucks 44th pick, second round, Tulsa
Willie Warren — Los Angeles Clippers 54th pick, second round, OU
Blake Griffin — Los Angeles Clippers 1st pick, first round, OU
Taylor Griffin — Phoenix Suns 48th pick, second round, OU
JamesOn Curry — Chicago Bulls 51st pick, second round, OSU