Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Smith and Phillips Athletes Compete in CAROLINA BOWL

Imagine you’re a Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools middle school student who lives and breathes football, and you’re invited to participate in a bowl game at Kenan Stadium. You’ll even jog through the tunnel, like so many great UNC football players before you, and out on the field. Hundreds of eyes will watch as you compete for the state of North Carolina.
Sounds like a far-fetched dream, perhaps, but five football players from the community - two from Phillips Middle School and three from Smith Middle School - lived that dream in December as competitors for the Carolina Bowl: Isaiah Roberson, Jackson Fortney, Andre Davis, Caleb Smith and Shad Alban.
Andre Davis and Caleb Smith
The Carolina Bowl (formerly the Youth Shrine Bowl) highlights the top youth football players from North and South Carolina. Participants are chosen through tryouts at regional combines, and occasionally through videos and coach recommendations. Coach John French of the Chapel Hill Police Department serves as the coach for the blended Phillips-Smith football team, as well as the Chapel Hill High women’s basketball team. He also runs a mentoring program at Smith for young men. With a keen awareness of talented football athletes in Chapel Hill-Carrboro, French worked hard to get his middle school players onto the Bowl roster for North Carolina.
The motto of the Bowl is “Kids Helping Kids,” and one aspect of the organization is a strong fundraising drive for St. Jude’s Hospital. Each player is encouraged to raise at least $1,000, but it is definitely not a Pay for Play scheme. Any athlete who doesn’t raise funds is still part of the team. As Coach French observed, along with daily service projects before the Bowl game, the focus on helping other children teaches the athletes the importance of giving.
“What I like most about the game is how they tie academics to athletics,” French said. “Kids need to have at least a 2.5 GPA to be invited. They needed to bring their report cards with them before they checked into the hotel.” Coach Jeane Brumley at Phillips, along with Coach Matt Sleeman at Smith, undertook the detailed process of collecting documentation for the five students, which included teacher recommendations.
Caleb Smith, Isaiah Roberson (with MVP trophy), Shad Albon
The district players made a real splash during the week of Bowl preparations, and especially during the big game at Kenan Stadium on December 16. The seventh grade team for North Carolina beat the “other” Carolina 32-0. When asked why that score was so lopsided, Phillips eighth grader Andre Davis didn’t skip a beat. “Because of Isaiah Roberson.”
Coach French proudly described the gifts of all his players, but he said that Roberson has a remarkable, elevated talent. In Kenan, he rushed for over 200 yards, scored four touchdowns and ran a kick-off return for 65 yards. “He played out of this world.” The seventh grader won the Overall MVP for the Carolina Bowl.
Jackson Fortney
Roberson is modest about his own abilities. He cited his speed as an important factor in his success, as well as his dedication to improving in all areas. Coach French pointed to Roberson’s leadership skills as the most important part of his strong performance on the field and off.
In April, French and Roberson will travel to Charlotte for the regional Football University camp, and maybe the Smith Middle School standout will even catch the attention of recruiters for the National Combine in January 2019.
When describing the four days in December of preparing and then competing for the game, Andre Davis continually broke into a smile. “To me, personally, it was great. The experience of traveling as a team, getting up in the morning and going down to breakfast together, just talking. All riding on the bus. I felt like I really knew my team.”
Caleb Smith, Phillips seventh grader, agreed. “It was great meeting different people from across the state.”
The players gathered with their coaches in Raleigh on the Wednesday before the Bowl game, and they spent three nights at a hotel there. Both Davis and Roberson spoke about how quickly their teams jelled and how they made new friends from both states, athletes who they expect to encounter as their football careers progress. French said, “They can make lifelong friends in less than a week.”
At UNC, all of the young athletes gathered in the Kenan locker room to hear from Coach Larry Fedora, as well as from recruiting scouts. Davis said the scouts emphasized the importance of always remembering what you learned the day before, and apply it as you move forward.
Both Davis and Roberson remarked that a high point was running through the Kenan tunnel, though Davis laughed when he said they were annoyed that the North Carolina teams had to use the Away tunnel, instead of the UNC Home tunnel. Roberson said he couldn’t believe how much noise a group of 40 young men can make, inside a football tunnel.
Although this community is hardly known as a football hotbed these days, Coach French believes that could change, especially with such impressive talent in the pipeline, and now the regional recognition for these players.
“We want to make sure we increase excitement for football in the Chapel Hill community. It seems like it’s a dying breed-- kids not really trying out. I’m really blessed I was able to coach Isaiah and Andre and all the other players.” Clearly, French believes this momentum can impact CHCCS football in the years ahead, and he hopes that fans will start to pay attention to these young stars.
The Carolina Bowl (formerly Youth Shrine Bowl) is a non-profit organization based in Hope Mills, NC and Inman, SC. Proceeds from players’ fundraising go directly to St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Former Shrine Bowl players include the Detroit Lions’ Eric Ebron who competed in the 2010 game.