The hundreds of kids who showed up at Tad Gormley Stadium were wet, tired and hungry, wrung out by two hours of football practice in a steady rain that enveloped City Park on Saturday.
But before they could head over to the tents to pick up the burgers and pizza provided for lunch, the group rose as one, each kid took hold of a white balloon and followed Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis on a walk around the track that rings the field.
Then they let the balloons go, each representing a victim of New Orleans violence — the reason behind Lewis’ idea to hold a football camp this week on short notice.
“A lot of people in our city have been going through a lot,” Lewis said. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to just come out and give back to my community.”
The shooting death of beloved former Saints defensive end Will Smith last Saturday sparked a national outcry, led by some of the city’s most prominent NFL players, against gun violence in New Orleans.
Lewis, who grew up on the West Bank, responded with action, finding instructors, partner organizations and donors of both food and money in a matter of days to host a camp that registered 378 kids, from the age of 6 all the way up to 18.
A football camp can be a powerful tool. When Lewis was growing up, he remembers going to camps led by some of the city’s other NFL products, whose examples gave him hope that he could follow in their footsteps.
“Coming to camps, listening to guys like Reggie Wayne, Kordell Stewart,” Lewis said. “That’s why it’s important for guys like myself, Tyrann (Mathieu), Odell (Beckham Jr.), Mike Wallace, Kendrick (Lewis), basketball players and even those who don’t play sports, get out in the community and take these young people by the hand.”
Lewis wants to show the youth of New Orleans what’s possible.
Even without another NFL star able to join him on such short notice, Lewis put together a list of speakers who served as living examples of the possibilities that exist even for kids in the inner city: P.J. Morton, an R&B singer and keyboardist for Maroon 5; Darren Lewis, principal for Lake Area New Tech; Greg Tillery, owner of We Dat’s New Orleans Own Chicken and Shrimp, a restaurant that just opened on Canal Street; and Michael Franklin, a St. Augustine product who played at San Diego State.
All four stressed the importance of education, pointing out that athletic scholarships require academic performance and simultaneously reminding the young athletes that only a small percentage of high school athletes end up in the pros.
“We can get them to transition their thinking,” Franklin said. “That’s where most of these kids falter at. They don’t understand the mindset of being outside of the inner city of New Orleans. Most of the kids that come from the meager livings or the underprivileged surroundings, they only see one thing.”
Lewis also brought in 21-year-old Corey Juluke to bring home the impact of gun violence. Three years ago, Juluke got in a fight with Wade Reed. Two years after that altercation, Juluke said, he ran into Reed’s brother, Will, and Will Reed opened fire on Juluke’s yellow Chevrolet Camaro.
Juluke escaped without injury. But his girlfriend — Milan Arriola, the daughter of a New Orleans police officer and firefighter and the niece of trumpeter Kermit Ruffins — was struck by a bullet and killed.
“I just came here to let them know, you’ve got to make wise decisions,” Juluke said. “It can be something as simple as you not walking away from a fight, and it could cost you your life.”
Lewis, who lost his brother-in-law and the man’s pregnant girlfriend in a New Orleans East shooting in December, also stressed the importance of avoiding the kinds of escalated arguments that lead to shootings.
“That’s one thing I want to teach the youth — that it’s cool to say I’m sorry,” Lewis said. “It’s cool to shake each other’s hands when there’s a conflict. You don’t have to go into violence to try to prove everything.”
By all accounts, the players were listening.
Brian Williams, a freshman wide receiver at Cohen High, recently lost his cousin over a drug dispute.
“It felt good to have these people out here being a figure to us as we’re growing up,” the 16-year-old said. “New Orleans is a good place, but seeing all these people get killed, it’s devastation. … If he’d have been out here, he’d have learned some things. He wouldn’t have been hanging with the people he was hanging out with.”
Lewis, and a lot of the men and women assembled at Tad Gormley Stadium on Saturday, would like to see more events produced by the leadership of New Orleans.
“What ultimately needs to happen with these camps is, they need more of them,” said Shack Brown, coach of the New Orleans Chargers travel team. “It took an extremely bad situation to bring it on, but where do we go now?”
Lewis has some ideas.
Through the Keenan Lewis Foundation, he has hosted football camps in the past, but he’d like to expand his influence, going into different neighborhoods on a monthly or bimonthly basis and passing out footballs, other athletic equipment, books and other things for kids.
He’d also like to hold more camps attached to peace rallies, attaching education to the game he loves. By holding these camps, Lewis and a lot of the organizers believe, kids from different parts of the city get to know one another, building relationships that can diffuse tense situations in adulthood.
“Anything I can do to keep these kids outside and learning to play among each other,” Lewis said. “It’s true, we have a lot of (violence) going on in the city. It’s not like it’s going unnoticed. We see it every day, but it’s time for us to step in, take control of our city and get it solved.”