Marcus Williams posed a question to a roomful of parents and their children. What do you need every day?
Their answers varied.
More self-discipline, someone said. More sleep, a parent said. More motivation. More study time.
That question broke the ice during a two-hour leadership seminar that Williams hosted in Minneapolis this month in conjunction with his youth football camp.
“We did things to get them out of their comfort zone,” Williams said.
The former Hopkins High School football and basketball star is a professional athlete now, approaching his fourth NFL season as a cornerback for the New York Jets.
Like many NFL players, Williams, 26, wanted to host a camp in his hometown as a thank you and an opportunity to inspire the next generation.
In purely athletic terms, his story is powerful.
He was told repeatedly that he was too small or too slow to play big-time college football. He became an FCS All-America and national champion at North Dakota State.
Then he was told repeatedly that he was too small or too slow to play in the NFL. He went undrafted but has found a home with the Jets and has a good chance to earn a starting job in training camp.
Williams wanted his football camp to be about more than just football drills and conditioning, though. He envisioned something more impactful than a few hours on the field and a picture with an NFL player.
“He wanted to be accessible to them and not just about football,” said his father, Jeff. “How do we make something stick for the young people and give them a voice?”
Williams had an idea: Create a leadership seminar for kids ages 8 to 12 and their parents a few weeks before the actual camp. He hoped to build self-esteem and provide kids with values that guide their daily lives.
“We said: What can we do that other people aren’t doing?” Williams said. “We felt this was something unique.”
Two-hour sessions were held three consecutive Saturdays and drew 30 to 40 kids for each class. Williams helped lead the discussions along with his father, who is a personal empowerment training manager with Twin Cities R! SE, an organization that helps people improve their lives through career training and employment.
William partnered with the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities. The camp was free and held this past Saturday at Fairview Park in Minneapolis.
“The camp is fun,” Williams said, “but what we did in the classroom is way more valuable and important than what we can ever teach you on the football field.”
They started by telling the kids that they are lovable, important and valuable. The program focused on five attitudes critical to leadership — vision, courage, perseverance, belief and service.
At one point, counselors broke parents and kids into smaller groups. Each group made up a verse to a song that a family friend of Williams wrote specifically for his leadership camp.
To better understand each other, parents were asked what they need from their kids. And vice versa so that parents could hear directly from the children.
“The parents can understand and see what’s going on with the kids because they’re not at school with them,” Williams said. “They don’t know how their kids are thinking sometimes.”
Mathew Collier came with his 11-year-old son, Riddik. Collier is a fifth-grade teacher so he’s trained to impart many of those lessons at home and in his classroom. But he found value for his son in hearing that message from a professional athlete who grew up in Minneapolis.
“My son goes to a bunch of these different camps, but this is the first time they’ve had this aspect,” Collier said. “I wish the rest of them would do something like this.”
Williams gave campers his Instagram account and told them to reach out any time if they feel the need. He didn’t want to hold a one-day camp and then disappear from their lives.
“I’m thankful that I was born in this area and have worked my tail off to get to where I am now,” he said.