NFL players stepping up

Published 7:14 pm Saturday, May 19, 2012

Local basketball exhibition shows support for Project Next Step

What happens when you pit NFL players against the Washington police and fire-rescue-EMS departments in a basketball game?

We’re going to find out.

Fourteen professional football players come to Washington on June 15 to lend their support to Project Next Step, a Washington Police Department program that identifies at-risk teens and steps in to run interference with a potential life of crime. The program isn’t new — it’s been steering kids in the right direction since 2008 — however, the celebrity draw is.

The scheduled scrimmage between local emergency-response personnel and luminaries like Kansas City Chiefs’ wide receiver Terrance Copper and Green Bay Packers’ defensive end C.J. Wilson takes a back seat to Project Next Step’s football camp for children set for the following day. These players may have reached the pinnacle of their game and have much football wisdom to impart, but the purpose underscoring their visit is to share a positive message with the youth of Washington, according to Copper.

“You know, it’s definitely when you come from a small hometown, these kids don’t have a professional team, they don’t get a chance to see that,” the Washington native explained. “(We want) to show the kids that whatever they want to be in life, it’s achievable, whether that’s a doctor or a professional athlete.”

Copper was recruited to lend his star status to Project Next Step by Kimberly Grimes, WPD’s crime prevention and outreach manager. Grimes said that once he signed on, Copper took the reins and not only organized funding, but corralled his fellow athletes for the event.

“Terrance is the type of person, from the first time I called him, even though he’d already made other commitments for this year, he was eager to do this,” said Grimes.

Copper’s eagerness has translated into a roster of teammates, both past and present, for the Project Next Step basketball scrimmage and football camp. From connections he made playing ball at East Carolina University come offensive tackle Phoenix Evans, Baltimore Ravens’ fullback Vonta Leach, Belhaven native Wilson, and Damane Duckett, who went on to play with several NFL teams, including the Carolina Panthers, and whom Copper credits with providing him much of his football knowledge.

Copper’s Kansas City Chiefs teammates slated to participate are wide receivers Steve Breaston, Zeke Markshausen, Jamar Newsome and Chris Chambers (retired); cornerback and return specialist, Javier Arenas; running backs Dexter McCluster and Shaun Draughn; and defensive back Quentin Lawrence. Copper’s good friend, Houston Texans’ defensive back Jason Horton, whom he met during a similar football camp for children sponsored by Leach, also plans to attend.

“At first, we thought three or four (players) would come,” said Detective Andy Dawley, who has worked closely with Grimes to organize the two-day event. “Next thing I know, (Copper) said he had 14 people coming.”

According to Copper, many of these players come from small towns and understand the importance of programs like Project Next Step.

“Anything to help to give back to the community,” Copper said. “This is something big that the Washington Police Department is doing. I think it’s outstanding that they’re even doing this program.”

Former Washington police Chief Mick Reed launched Project Next Step after witnessing the success of the program in High Point. Recognized with an Award of Excellence at the 2010 North Carolina Governor’s Crime Commission Safe Communities Conference, the WPD program targets at-risk youth, those who’ve had minor brushes with the law, and steers juvenile offenders toward a more-positive path in life. Though Grimes only recently took the program over, according to Dawley, she’s made major strides in expanding its reach. Grimes said she loves the challenge of the job.

“I’m following the vision,” she said. “I understand the vision, and when you’re doing something that you love, it doesn’t seem like work.”

For Copper, the basketball scrimmage and football camp offer a unique opportunity to bridge the gap between law enforcement and Washington residents.

“Sometimes they’re viewed in the community in a negative way, even though they’re here to serve and protect,” said Copper. “By doing Project Next Step, they’re saying ‘We’re not just out there helping in the community — we really care about the community.’

“It’s something (the community) needs to know: that they have the Washington police and fire departments behind them 100 percent.”

To that point, the Project Next Step-sponsored football camp is free and open to all comers, ages 7 through 17, boys and girls. The deadline for registration is June 8.

As for the basketball game between the visiting NFL players and Washington police and fire-rescue-EMS, the final score is up in the air, though Copper is convinced the opposing team will put up some stiff competition.

“I’ve seen what they have to do (physically) to get into the department. I don’t think I could do that right now,” Copper laughed. “You know what? We’re going to go out there and have a good time. We’re not going run the score up.”

Because, he said, the game serves a higher purpose: “The kids in the community get to see the lighter side (of law enforcement). They get to see a different side. To see them let loose a little — it’s definitely good for the community to see that.

They’re regular people, just like you me. It’s definitely something positive.”

While Dawley agrees the game will be good for community relations, he’s less convinced of his team’s athletic prowess on the court.

“We’re going to get stomped,” Dawley groaned. “I have no doubt about that.”

The basketball scrimmage will take place at 7 p.m. on June 15 at Washington High School. The public is welcome to attend. For more information about the 2012 Football Camp, call Kimberly Grimes at 252-943-1715 or Det. Andy Dawley at 252-943-8194. Applications can be picked up at the Washington Police Department. Registration is in progress.