MOBILE, Alabama – Typical Gulf Coast summer weather accompanied the first Nick Fairley’s Lion Heart Charity Football and Cheerleading Camp today. The camp’s namesake – a former Williamson High School and Auburn standout who plays defensive tackle for the NFL’s Detroit Lions – didn’t mind.
“I’ve been in cool weather for the past three months in Detroit,” Fairley said. “When I first stepped off the plane when I got here, I was so happy to feel the heat, it was like ‘Wow!’ And everybody was looking at me, ‘Where are you coming from?’ because I said it so loud.”
More than 350 youngsters turned out at Williamson High School for the free event, with the boys hitting the practice field for football drills with Fairley, Williamson High School football coach Dedrick Sumpter, his staff and Lions players and the girls receiving instruction from University of South Alabama cheerleaders in the school’s gymnasium.
Fairley, 25, played for coach Bobby Parrish at Williamson, and before the camp started, he was thinking about old times with the Lions.
“I was thinking I haven’t stepped on that field in probably five years,” he said. “But it brings out some good old memories, being out there with my old teammates.”
Fairley said things he learned on that practice field are still with him as he heads into his third pro season.
“You pick up technique around that time in high school,” Fairley said. “That’s where you start picking up your craft. I still to this day work on things at practice that I worked on at the football field here at Williamson.”
In conjunction with the camp, Fairley’s charity weekend included a meet-and-greet mixer at the Cabo Coastal Cantina on Friday night and was concluding with the All-White Affair at the Tag Bar and Lounge tonight. This morning, Fairley made a $10,000 donation to Williamson’s athletic program, a contribution he said was “coming from the heart.”
“Being able to come back to where everything started for me, here at Williamson and Pillans and Craighead, I’m happy I’m in position to give back,” Fairley said. “I know when I was here, they had my back. There was never a downfall for me, and I really appreciated that. They stuck with me through everything, even when I went to JUCO, then at Auburn and now they still are.”
Fairley said the charity weekend in Mobile will be back next summer.
“I love working with kids,” he said. “This is our first one, and it’s going to be annual. I’m going to keep it going. I’ve got a lot of support here in Mobile. A lot of people love me. A lot of people got my best interests. And I really thank them for the support and love, and I’m just trying to give back to them.”
When he wasn’t having his photo taken and signing autographs, Fairley was on the field in the middle of the football drills, leading the “Hard work” cheer, leveling a tackling dummy and showing the proper footwork for this or that drill.
Fairley had two run-ins with the legal system in 2012 – a marijuana-possession charge that was later dismissed and a DUI charge that remains unresolved.
That’s not how Fairley wants his young fans to see him.
“Athletes don’t choose to be role models, but we are,” he said. “When you realize that, it’s good for you. Kids are going to remember you for a long time. I can remember when I played AAU ball in high school, and I saw Michael Jordan. I can remember that like it was yesterday.”
Part of playing in the NFL involves being in the spotlight. But Fairley said the business of professional football hasn’t robbed the game of its fun.
“The fun part of football as far as the NFL goes is when you get ready to go out there on Sundays and you just let everything go,” he said. “We’re under the microscope, but that’s our job, and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to make it work.”
Fairley has put himself in the offseason spotlight with some of his comments since the Lions ended the 2012 campaign with a 4-12 record. He’s said he expects Detroit to end the 2013 season in the Super Bowl and that he and Ndamukong Suh are the best defensive-tackle tandem in the NFL.
Fairley said those comments come from “just being competitive and wanting to win.”
“All my life when I’ve played sports, that’s all I’ve wanted to do – just win,” said Fairley, who helped Auburn win the BCS national championship game after the 2010 season. “I’m in this organization now, and that’s a goal for me and my teammates. You don’t want to do out there and lose games. That’s the competitor in me coming out.”
In addition to the football and cheerleading, the Franklin Medical and Dental Express trailer was on hand today, and the youngsters heard a message from Dr. Galen Duncan, the senior director of player development for the Detroit Lions. Duncan said while some of them might have what it takes to reach the athletic heights that Fairley has, most would not get there. But he said he didn’t tell them that “to smash your dreams,” but “to tell you about your opportunities.” He reminded the youngsters they weren’t just athletes, but student-athletes.
Award winners at the camp in football were Anthony McCants and DeAnthony Sanderffer, who were the MVPs; Anthony Kimbrough, who was the most improved, and Dedarius Evans, who won the Lion Heart Award. In cheerleading, Genesis Pope was most spirited and Lennon Lusane most improved in the younger age group, and Asinee Bowick was most spirited and Juwanda Hall most improved in the 13- through 18-year-old age group.
Lennon is a 5-year-old from Daphne who’ll be starting kindergarten at Daphne East this year.
“I learned a cheer: ‘Go, Jags, go.’ I loved it when we cheered,” Lennon said of her camp experience.
Lennon is expecting to become a cheerleader for the Alabama Crimson Tide “because I do it now.”
Jaylon Wells, a rising freshman at Blount High School, said he learned something about football while sweating on the practice field today.
“I learned that it’s a lot of hard work becoming a football player,” the 15-year-old said. “It’s a lot of drills and plays and working out, muscle building. It’s a lot of work.”
Like, his friend Jaylon, Braxton Jordan, a rising sixth-grader at Fairhope Intermediate School, enjoyed the day.
“I liked that you got to go outside and do drills,” the 11-year-old said. “It teaches you what football is about. I like that you got to get autographs from Nick Fairley and see Nick Fairley.”
Both of the football-camp participants got Fairley to sign their camp T-shirts.
Asked what he learned during the drills, Braxton replied: “Keep your head up.”
Follow Mark Inabinett on Twitter: Follow @AMarkG1