When Savannah Simpson announced she wanted to be the first woman to play in the National Football League, her parents first trusted their 8-year-old’s dream to her uncle, who was coaching a recreation league.
Her next coach: Raleigh native Leroy Harris Jr., a Tennessee Titans offensive lineman entering his sixth season in the league.
For the fourth straight summer, Savannah, now 15, will spend two days under Harris’ tutelage at the 2012 Leroy Harris Football Camp. The free camp is July 7-8 at Southeast Raleigh High School. Saturday camp hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m., with dinner. Sunday’s camp is 1-5 p.m., followed by a family-style cookout.
“My daughter’s ultimate goal is to be the first woman in the NFL, and anything I can do to help her achieve her dream, I’m going to take the steps to get her there,” said Stacey Hickok, Savannah’s mom. “Leroy is a fantastic guy.”
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Harris, 28, a Southeast Raleigh alum who graduated from N.C. State in 2006, began hosting the football camp for children ages 5-15 “before he ever played a down in the NFL,” recalls Michael McGarvey, vice president of Enter-Sports Management.
“I just do it to help the kids in the area I grew up in,” Harris said. “I want them to come out and learn the proper techniques, because once you start learning the wrong technique, it’s hard to break that.”
The campers get it.
“It’s been nice since the first year I went,” Savannah said. “They are really, like, hands-on with the kids. They are actually out there doing it with us, really getting to know us.”
“That’s what I like, for me,” she added. “That’s really cool.”
It’s paid off, too.
For the past two years, Savannah advanced from community leagues to play football at East Millbrook Middle School. This year she was named Female Athlete of the Year, having played football, basketball, softball and track, where she excels in shot put.
“The camp shows me good technique,” Savannah said. “I’m getting it from someone who really knows, and I’m able to use strategies and tips I learn at camp in my games, and it has helped me a lot.”
Savannah’s now preparing to try out for the football team at Wakefield High School, where she’s a rising freshman. “I’m very proud of her,” Hickok said. “I tell her, ‘You go out there and do what you have to do to prove yourself.’ ”
When Harris introduced his summer camp at Wilders Grove in 2006, about 50 children attended. By year two, more than 200 campers showed up. This year, Harris expects about 300 campers, 225 of which will have preregistered. “We don’t turn anybody away,” he said.
On the first day of the camp, Harris asks for report cards. Campers who made the “A” or “A/B” honor rolls get once-in-a-lifetime rewards. At her first camp, Savannah got a signed pair of Harris’ cleats and gloves he wore in Titans games.
Other gifts include footballs signed by Tennessee Titans, signed T-shirts, gift cards and autographed pictures with campers, among other things.
This is the first year Harris’ camp will be at Southeast Raleigh. “It’s such a great opportunity for us to have Leroy over here at Southeast Raleigh, where he belongs, to promote the good things in life,” said Southeast Athletic Director Daniel Finn. “It’s about introducing kids at a young age to the life lessons football teaches, the journey of hard work and dedication, and friends.”
McGarvey said philanthropic summer football camps are common this time of year. Eight of the 30 NFL players he represents hold camps, he said. Something stands out about Harris’ camp, McGarvey said.
“We have been able to build momentum,” he explained, noting not only are there more campers, it also has grown from one day to two.
Also growing, he added, is community support from local vendors, as well as Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart, where Harris will sign autographs July 6. “It’s just a testament to the kind of person Leroy is,” McGarvey said. “It’s not only about the brand and the players doing something positive in the community, it’s also about creating longevity.”
The camp relies on help from many others, said Harris, a husband and father of three. He credits his “triangle” for helping him coordinate plans for the camp when he can’t be here.
It begins, he said, with his parents, Leroy and Shelvatine Harris Sr. And in addition to Finn, Harris calls on his former North Garner Middle School coach, Wilton Bunns; former college teammate and roommate at N.C. State, A.J. Davis, who coaches in Durham; and countless others.
Harris said keeping those close connections to home makes sense. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t gone to N.C. State,” he said, adding he moved from defense to offense with the Wolf Pack. “It molded who I am now.”
The camp-closing cookout passes that message to campers. “We want it to be more of a family environment,” Harris said. “It’s a way to bring us all together at the end.”