Chris Culliver looked more like a coach than a five-year NFL veteran as he roamed the Thompson Road Park grass lined with orange and yellow cones to mark various football drill stations.
He shouted encouragement beneath a wide-brimmed straw hat and carried an air horn that football coaches use as a signal to players to end one drill and move to the next. His face lit up each time he squeezed the trigger and the horn blared.
“It’s a better feeling on the other side of this,” said Culliver, a 2007 Garner High graduate.
More rewarding was reaching down for hand slaps with an even wider smile as 125 youths between the ages of 6 to 18 ran past him throughout his first free football camp. Cully’s Camp was staged Saturday just down the road from Garner High, where he played three years varsity football from 2004 to 2006.
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The free camp had been on Culliver’s mind since he came out of South Carolina as a second-team All-Southeastern Conference cornerback drafted in the third round by the San Francisco 49ers in 2011, but life gets in the way when you’re trying to establish your career.
He spent four seasons with the 49ers, including Super Bowl XLVII that San Francisco lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the 2012 season. Last year he played for the Washington Redskins until he was placed on injured reserve after he tore his ACL and MCL in a late November practice.
This offseason he made time in his rehab schedule to launch the free camp.
“I’m really happy with the turnout,” Culliver said. “I want to make this an annual event. I want everybody to have a great time and learn some football.”
Culliver relied on old Garner High and college friends to help him as camp coaches. That’s a contrast from camps that bring in NFL stars but not necessarily a drawback. NFL stars provide name recognition, but they often go through the motions to fulfill their obligation. Culliver’s coaches had their hands down in the dirt, sweating under the hot sun along with the players.
Helping Culliver run the event was James Payne, a Garner alumnus who trains Culliver and other college and high school athletes through his Garner business, Team Payne. Other coaches were Lemond Johnson, a Garner alum playing at Richmond; Demetrius Fairley, a Garner alum playing at UNC Pembroke; Cedric Snead, who played with Culliver at Garner and South Carolina; and Art Norman, who played at N.C. State.
A point of emphasis for Culliver was teaching proper techniques. In recent years, USA Football has emphasized proper tackling techniques to ease the growing national concern among parents that football is a dangerous sport.
“I can understand it – my mom was skeptical when I was young,” Culliver said. “That’s why we’re emphasizing the right techniques.”
Culliver’s mother, Maria Williams, was also on hand, helping provide water and fruit for the young athletes.
“I prayed about it when he was young and first wanted to play,” Williams said. “But I think now there is a lot more awareness about teaching techniques.”
Nicole Rainey of Raleigh was among the parents on the sidelines as she watched her son J.J. participating.
“There’s risk in any sport kids play,” Rainey said. “I think football has come a long way teaching the right techniques.”
Once the camp concluded, Culliver prepared to travel to Arizona with hopes of signing with the Cardinals. He says he’s fully recovered from his knee injury, but the Redskins released him once they signed former Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman.
“My rehab has gone great,” Culliver said. “I’m looking to show what I can do.”