LOCUST GROVE, Ga. — Tyron Williams looked on, just behind the group of 11 and 12 year olds playing flag football as if he were their head coach.
Standing tall, arms crossed. Dark sunglasses on so that his facial expressions could not be seen. He wasn’t just watching some pick-up game in the park featuring kids with nothing else better to do.
He was watching the manifestation of a dream he and former Towers High School football standout Kennard Turner had been nursing for quite some time, even as they served on the board of a Locust Grove football and cheerleading organization.
That dream could be best embodied by a question. What would happen if a football organization could be used to help kids do more than just play football?
And on a late Tuesday evening, Williams said he realized he was looking at the answer in the personage of the Georgia Elite Sports Academy.
“To see how things have grown and to see the progress we’ve made, it’s unbelievable,” Williams said. Williams and his wife Bea helped Turner launch the organization almost two years ago.
And those aforementioned 11 and 12 year olds are indeed telltale signs of that progress.
They’re a part of a group of young flag footballers — a team of 10 year olds also included — that will be leaving for Chicago this week to not only play in an NFL sponsored flag football tournament on Saturday May 2, but to also breathe in all the activity and pageantry that is the annual NFL football Draft which begins Thursday.
Moreover, they’re the founding pieces to an effort, launched about 18 months ago, to use football as a tool to help kids learn that there’s more to life than football.
The numbers are impressive. The Academy’s NFL-sponsored flag football league began with 108 total participants in its inaugural year. Now, combine the 240 flag football participants with more than 185 kids involved in their tackle football program, and you’ve got over 400 Southern Crescent area youth being impacted by GESA’s mission.
“We’re excited about the flag football program, and the success of the tackle football program, but more than that, our organization is comprised of about 60 percent things that we do other than what’s going on on this field,” Williams said.
That’s why this next set of numbers is more impressive to the organization’s founders than just the football program measureables.
Sixteen families being sponsored with food this past Thanksgiving. Two families adopted by Georgia Elite for Christmas. An annual health fair that drew 115 people out to Heritage Park last year where Williams said “doctors from every genre of healthcare” were present to provide screenings.
And that’s not to mention the tuxedo giveaway the organization sponsored for local high school kids.
Oh, and the best part? It wasn’t just the Academy’s adults involved in the service initiatives.
“We’re delivering meals to these families and gifts to these kids, and that was huge because our kids in the program got the chance to see people struggling and maybe not doing as well as them,” said Bea Williams who serves as the board of directors’ executive secretary. “And they had the chance to see how blessing others can help them, and to see how appreciative other people can be when you go to help someone else.
“It’s such a big deal for us that these kids get to see the other side of sports, and that it’s not just all about them and the sports they play, but it’s all about the community.”
That distinction, Tyron Williams said, is the thing he believes sets GESA apart from the plethora of other sports organizations in Henry County and on the Southside of Atlanta as a whole.
“What the other organizations are — and God bless them, because they’re good at what they do — but most of the other organizations are just football organizations,” Tyron Williams said. “We’re a youth development organization. That’s a whole different animal. At the end of the day, it’s not about what happens on that football field. The plastic trophies don’t matter. We’re trying to change kids lives. We feel our holistic approach in the nurturing of a child is where it’s at.”
The program’s attractiveness brings kids and flag football teams from as near as Locust Grove and McDonough to as far away as Griffin — and even Fairburn.
“The truth is, I let my kids pick where they wanna play, and my son likes playing here for them,” said Amber Forrest, a Fairburn resident who’s 12 year old son Daudi Forrest has been with GESA since it began. She also coaches in the tackle football program.
“They teach him things other than football like financial stuff and how he should be in school. We do some discipline over here too,” she added. “He likes it here.”
And to think such a rich initiative almost didn’t happen.
Both Tyron and Bea Williams, as well as Turner, GESA’s president, candidly acknowledged the struggles they had trying to jumpstart the organization.
Turner, a long time youth football coach in Henry and DeKalb counties, said the trio tried to incorporate some of the community outreach and holistic development approaches into the area’s existing football organization where they were already members of the board, but were met with what he called baffling resistance.
“I honestly don’t know why it was that way,” Turner said. “It’s mind boggling to me. I can speculate this or that, but to be honest, it was shocking to say the least that they didn’t want some of these things. But you can’t impart wisdom on people if they don’t want it.”
So instead of facing a continuous struggle to change that organization, Turner and company decided to take their ideas and new initiatives and create their own. And even that was an uphill climb at first.
Tyron Williams said that even in their attempts to be an independent entity, they still received pushback.
“When we started the program, we had to fight existing programs that didn’t want us here,” he said. “Nobody seemed to want it to come into fruition. There were even people telling others not to join with us. I think it was just the fact that Locust Grove football and cheer had been doing things for years, and it’s such a baseball town, and it was just the status quo of the area, and new ideas weren’t welcomed.”
Williams recalls a particular time when he went, on the organization’s behalf, before the Henry County Board of Commissioners to appeal for field space to house the program.
Initially, it was an unsuccessful push.
“We actually had a parent who came up to me one time and said, ‘Hey, I watched you guys on public TV going to the commissioners and asking for field space, and I saw what they did to ya’ll in not giving you the fields, and it broke my heart.'”
But in the end the resistance proved beneficial.
“That same man, when he watched our program begin to develop, he remembered us and brought his whole family to the program and said that his entire family had to be a part of it,” Williams said. “That’s fighting against the odds, and it’s why we say it’s only God that could’ve made this happen.”
It’s safe to say GESA has come a long way from rejection in front of the Henry County BOC to reaching the community and now traveling to Chicago and the NFL Draft where their kids will hobnob with NFL athletes and possibly get a chance to meet NFL commissioner Roger Goodell before playing in Saturday’s tournament.
And receiving funding from the Arthur Blank Foundation doesn’t hurt either. In fact, such support is vital to help bring on other programs like what Tyron Williams calls the 529 program — a financial initiative designed to ensure that “100 percent of our kids can go to a college or technical school after high school.”
Bea Williams said those distinctives — the “60 percent” — must remain the backbone of the program.
“As Kennard always says, we’re raising firemen, lawyers, teachers, policemen, doctors,” she said. “Everyone’s not going to be an athlete.”
But make no mistake. When it comes to the football part of it all, Turner the coach still has some football fire flowing in him that may not be as evident in Turner the non-profit organization president.
“It’s a once in a life time opportunity for these kids,” Turner said. “So yes, even though it’s all about the experience, I tell them if we’re gonna go compete, we might as well be competitive. We’re going to try and play to win.”
But regardless of Saturday’s results, it looks like GESA’s already winning.