The first time Carlos McCain brought home 25 young football players for a camp in his backyard, his wife, Candra, wasn't prepared.
"When he asked -- well, he didn't even ask," she remembers with a laugh. "He said, 'I'm going to bring a couple kids home to stay the night.' I was like, Okaay ..."
By now, she's used to it. McCain, 36, has been coaching a junior league football team in Raleigh for the past nine years, and hours upon hours with his players is just part of the daily routine for him and his wife.
His work with the Chavis Community Center's Junior League Vikings has earned him a reputation statewide, and next month he'll be honored by the Carolina Panthers as one of the 2009 Volunteer Coaches of the Year -- 10 coaches selected from squads in both Carolinas.
In May, McCain also received the Fred Fletcher Award for Outstanding Athletic Volunteer, selected by fellow junior league coaches.
"You know, he could really care less about those -- that's not why he does it," Candra McCain says. "But I think it's important that he knows, 'I am finally being acknowledged.' "
There are times when McCain wonders if the hours he puts into the program and the kids are really making a difference.
An hour before a practice last week, McCain heard that one of his former players had been killed in gang-related violence.
"It hurts me even when you lose one," he says. "Even though you know you save so many. I know I'm encouraging them to do the right thing. But you can't help but feel like you failed."
You'd be hard-pressed, though, to find a critic who would call McCain's work a failure. Instead, he serves as an inspiration for his players and fellow coaches, such as Roderick Steadman.
"He's incredible," Steadman says. "He fills that dad role some of these kids don't have. We had a couple kids that kind of went down the wrong route, but whenever they see coach Carlos, they straighten up. They pull their pants up, it's 'yes, sir,' and 'no, sir' -- he really means a lot to these kids."
Work off the field
And that comes mostly from his work with them off the football field. McCain began an event for his squad called Vikings' Night Out, in which he takes the team on an overnight trip -- the first time it was in his backyard; since then, it's been a night in a hotel.
"We started talking to the kids, and they were telling me they'd never been outside their households. I said, 'What do you mean?' " Carlos McCain says. "They told me they'd never been outside Raleigh, they'd never been to a hotel. ...
"So this is a chance for them to see what it's like for maybe kids who live a little differently than they do. They can just be young men communicating and sharing fellowship and brotherhood."
When McCain and his team stay out, they book only two hotel rooms -- a fact that amuses hotel managers, he says, but which stems from the travel he used to do with his entire family, when they'd crowd into one or two bedrooms.
In fact, most of the way he approaches his interaction with the team comes from his own experiences, and that's why he connects so well with the players, Steadman says.
"He can relate to them," he says. "And he's done well for himself, but he doesn't look down on them. He doesn't write them off. Instead, he tells them, 'I made mistakes, too -- so you can change, like I did.' "
His mentoring goes beyond the football field. He emphasizes doing homework, learning respect for adults and doing volunteer work.
His players have their own progress reports that must be signed by their teachers and turned in to McCain and his other coaches. Each player also has a coach assigned to contact the school in case of issues or failing grades.
"He's really good; he's been good with my son," said Melissa Barnes, whose son Jamie plays for McCain. "[Jamie] knows that if he gets in trouble, he's got to deal with Coach Carlos, and he does not want to do that."
Because of the constant involvement in school and the children's personal lives, McCain promises much more than sore muscles and a stronger bench press by the end of the season.
""He always preaches to them to stay on the right side of things -- they can't just play sports all the time," said Chris Moore, community center director at the Halifax center. "He really coaches the kids on life, not just football."
And that's a philosophy McCain lives by more than just through his football team. He works as a counselor at Johnston Correctional Institution, and he brings the same ideals of right and wrong and life coaching there, too.
"You know, I've had several opportunities which included more money, or better hours, but ... that's not my mission in life," McCain said. "And I don't feel like being with those kids and working with them [in football] is a job anyway. I feel like it's a necessity."
That's why McCain commutes four days a week to practice in Raleigh from his home and work in Smithfield, leaving behind his wife and two sons of his own to be with his other family.
"He's just been a good example of what a man should be," said Roxanne Stover, whose 13-year-old son has played for McCain for three years. "He works hard. They see him coming sometime, he's changing his clothes in the back of his trunk. But he goes from work, comes and makes it to practice."
And the "big kid" who takes his players to movies and campouts turns into something else on the field, and he's the first to admit it: "Hard-nosed," he said with a laugh. "That's the only word."
"He's definitely a disciplinarian," Steadman says. "The next step for them is high school, so he prepares them for that next level -- not only as players, but as young men."
And the hours McCain spends commuting and then sweating on the practice fields all become worth it when he sees players succeeding in high school and college.
"He does this for his heart," wife Candra said. "At first, I was like, 'Wow. This is a lot.' But you know what, I don't get upset anymore. I just say, 'I'll see you later.' As long as he's doing what's best for these kids -- God has led him to do this. This is his heart. This is his passion."