November 2009 Miami Hope Noah Wilbanks Dave Pond
It's an ordinary Wednesday afternoon at Miami's Ghoulds Park where, under the watchful eye of FCA's Noah Wilbanks, a group of street-savvy football prospects race through a series of drills hoping to catch the eyes of college football coaches from across the nation.
These aren't your typical blue-chippers. Some are teenagers, others are in their mid-20's, but all are pushing themselves through the oppressive South Florida heat alongside campmates of different ethnicities and from others parts of town.
For most, life has gotten in the way of gridiron glory. A quick survey would reveal that some were never even eligible to play high school ball, while others have battled homelessness, drug abuse and prison time.
FCA's Noah Wilbanks (center) with FCA football campers in September
But these boys — who answer to colorful nicknames like Junkyard Dog, Smurf and Genesis — can play. And they have come to "Coach Noah" for their own Hail Mary shots at redemption.
Historically, the efforts have paid off. Over the last five years, Wilbanks estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the players who have attended the weekly, year-round FCA football camp have earned spots on a college football roster.
"We get some real characters out here," said Wilbanks, a former prep star at South Dade High School who played collegiately at Carson-Newman College (Tenn.). "The meanest and the toughest of Miami — if they come out here, they conform to what we're asking. This is all they've got. They may be working a part-time job somewhere, but they still have the dream."
Wide receivers Kayne Farquharson and Corey Surrency found themselves playing for Miami and Florida State, respectively, after attending the FCA Camp, while another gifted receiver, Nicholls State's Antonio Robinson, led all FCS wideouts with a 25.1 yards-per-catch average last season.
"I think Noah is an angel, man, an angel for a lot of us — especially for the guys whose fathers weren't around," Robinson said. "My dad didn't raise me, so Noah was like a mentor and a father figure to me."
Five years ago, Wilbanks — a teacher at a Miami-area high school — began doing football drills on his own as a way of keeping in shape following the end of his college career. Robinson, a high school sophomore who was ineligible to play football at the time, was the first student to join him in training.
"There were just three of us out there: me, Coach Noah and a dude named Genesis. And it all started on a field out by the projects," Robinson said. "My auntie had always kept us going to church as a family and kept us close to God, so I had a decision to make: I could stay around the guys who were doing wrong, or I could try to change my life and make a better life for myself. At FCA Camp, I got to hear the Word of God and get a good workout. That's what speed camp was like — it was hard, but it was a chance."
Robinson got his grades up and family issues in order, and, after a team-MVP season at South Dade High School, the 6'1", 195-pound receiver headed to Rainy River Community College in International Falls, Minn. After a brief stop at Louisiana-Lafayette, Robinson landed at Nicholls State where, in an unexpected let-down, he rode the pine for the team's first two games.
"I was on the bench and wanted to quit, but I called Noah and we prayed about it," he said. "After our conversation, I felt like God wanted me to give it more time."
The next game, Robinson did play. In fact, he broke off an 80-yard reverse on his first play and has started every game since. Last season he was named an All-Southland Conference Honorable Mention wide receiver after racking up 608 all-purpose yards as what Coach Jay Thomas calls the team's "home-run threat."
This summer, Robinson served as a counselor at the legendary Manning Passing Academy (as in Archie, Peyton and Eli) and returned to Ghoulds Park to hone his skills and give the current crop of campers a glimpse of what can be accomplished with hard work and faith in Christ.
"I don't know where I'd be right now if I hadn't gotten involved with FCA Camp — I don't even want to think about it," Robinson said. "Where I grew up, my mom didn't raise me, and I just met my dad this past December. I got kicked out of the house and was homeless when I was 16, but I stayed focused and put all my trust in God. If I can make it, anybody can make it."
"I only charge them their attitude, their effort and big ears during Bible study. God makes it work. It's a life transformation that takes place in these kids." – Wilbanks
Unlike other elite-level football camps in the area, there's no cost for athletes to develop their skills alongside Wilbanks and the other volunteer coaches. To attend — and keep coming back each week — players simply must agree to three rules:
1. Don't be late.
2. Don't curse.
3. Give everything you've got.
"I only charge them their attitude, their effort and big ears during Bible study," Wilbanks said. "God makes it work. It's a life transformation that takes place in these kids."
The camp schedule is intentionally rigid in its structure — an aspect of life that's been absent in the lives of many of the athletes. Each weekly session opens with prayer and is followed by Scripture and a devotional. After drills, additional time is dedicated to prayer and testimonies before the players leave.
"We want to offer more than just teaching these kids how to become better athletes and great football players," Wilbanks said. "They're hearing the Word, and they're in a great atmosphere where there's respect, structure and discipline. They still get that taste of being a part of a team, but there's just so much more for them. They're getting hit on all levels — spiritually, physically, mentally — and they're being challenged to stay strong during the rest of the week as well."
It's a simple game plan, but one that's crucial to the camp's success. Although a significant number of participants do end up playing college ball, Wilbanks said it's just as important to show the players how to walk with Christ and lean on their faith through all of life's ups and downs.
"It's more than football," Wilbanks said. "They are learning to compete — win or lose — and their faith and self-discipline carry over into other parts of their lives. Even the ones who don't end up playing football, we hope they'll become better in whatever field they go into."
Personally, Wilbanks knows what a life without faith is like. It wasn't until after his own playing career ended that he developed a personal relationship with Christ.
He began attending FCA Huddle meetings while at Carson-Newman, but he didn't begin to follow the Lord until after graduation. That was when the emptiness in his heart became too much to ignore in the absence of the game he loved so much.
"I don't know where I'd be right now if I hadn't gotten involved with FCA Camp –– I don't even want to think about it." – Nicholls State receiver Antonio Robinson
As a high school teacher and coach, he began to pursue the Lord and got involved in FCA activities. Eventually, he was running a pair of Huddles at rival high schools where the athletes routinely prayed together, much to the chagrin of the schools' athletic directors. The once-a-week after-school workouts with Genesis and Antonio Robinson — which always opened with prayer — followed, and his practice field filled up in a hurry.
"I started out there with two kids and watched it grow to 30 in six weeks — no advertising," he said. "To God be the glory. I was just trying to stay in shape."
Wilbanks soon noticed that he was practicing less for personal benefit and focusing more on the athletes taking part in the intense workouts.
"I remembered FCA and the great people who were speaking into my life in college, sharing and planting those seeds," he said. "I thought, 'Wait a minute, this might work.'
"Basically, I worked myself out of a job," he said with a laugh. "The next thing I knew, I was doing devotions and conducting practices like a little head coach, running seven-on-sevens and conditioning drills for the guys."
Wilbanks eventually left teaching and took a full-time staff position as an FCA area representative under Miami Area Director Joe Oliver. Now, the sport he left has become the common bond he shares with a hardscrabble group of athletes in search of a second chance.
"I loved school and teaching, but I left everything to go on staff and have never looked back," Wilbanks said. "Christ's love has a ripple effect that begins to affect everything around you in a positive and godly manner.
"It's been fun, and it's been a great ride," he said. "This camp has been a great tool in helping reach these athletes for Christ, and I pray God will continue to use it and FCA to help bring kids to Him."
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Photos courtesy of Noah Wilbanks; Nicholls State Media Relations.