Story by Aaron Carter.
COLUMBIA — Think of an NFL player. If the thought of lavish lifestyle comes to mind, think again.
“I still drive the same truck I bought when I was a rookie,” Atiyyah Ellison said with a slight chuckle. “That was the second purchase I made, behind my wife’s wedding ring.”
Ellison, a former lineman at Missouri drafted into the NFL, is now a defensive line coach at Battle High School. Ellison also reached out to Columbia and surrounding areas by holding a “Play with the Pros” all-sports camp in Boonville July 18 to19.
From a young age, Ellison developed the motivation to work hard.
“My mom always pushed community service and volunteering for the greater good,” Ellison said. “I grew up knowing the importance of hard work.”
Knowing he had to put in work to get results created a humble environment for Ellison.
“I never knew we were in poverty when I was a kid. Not having much made me more level-headed,” he said.
The qualities that Ellison learned at a younger age translate to Ellison’s continued community service as an adult.
The NFL provides a grant for former players who donate toward nonprofit organizations by matching the donations. This grant covers the cost of equipment, camp shirts and other intricacies. This allowed Ellison to start a camp that is free to all athletes six to 12 years old.
The grant reminded Ellison of the type of opportunities he was given as a young player.
“I didn’t really have anything to worry about anything monetarily, really,” Ellison said. “Things like bed sheets and toiletries, things you would never think about spending money on, are provided for you.”
Programs are now trying to help these kids before they get to college.
Non-NFL programs and grants do exist for youth athletes. Erika Coffman, Recreation services manager at the Columbia Parks and Recreation office, stresses the importance of parents’ roles in this issue. Coffman spoke about parents volunteering their time to run concessions or running bingo nights, which are regular at the Cosmo Club, produced by Sporting Columbia.
“As long as the organization is funded, the cost will stay down,” Coffman said.
Susan Richison, along with Ellison, has a connection with Boonville and football. Richison is the head of the Youth Football Program in Boonville. The financial aspect of the program is something that Richison tries to alleviate so every child can have a chance to participate.
“If there’s a child that can’t play because of funding issues, we try to find a way to work around it,” Richison said.
Even though some athletes might not be as financially supported to do everything they desire, all differences between students disappear once they are in the program.
“There’s always been a disparity within the school cliques,” Richison said. “But once they get on the field, they come together.”
This merging of athletes creates a stronger culture as a team, similar to a family unit. With the blending of personalities also comes learning. Just like in school, there is lots of room to learn in athletics.
“(Sports) break down some barriers,” Richison said. “Sports teach [the athletes] teamwork and responsibility that enables them to look past those boundaries.”
Phil Rumbaoa, team physician for Boonville High School and youth football coach, played football as a walk-on at UCLA and has been working as a doctor at the vein clinic in Columbia. He has also coached wrestling.
“The experience of being a walk-on gave me the perseverance that it takes to make it through something like med school,” Rumbaoa said.
In youth sports, Rumbaoa wants his players to chase their dreams, but he also wants to make sure he keeps his players level-headed.
“The chances of making it to the pros are so slim, and I tell the kids that,” Rumbaoa said, “[I want them to be able to] develop themselves to the best of their ability and then maybe they can reach their goals.”
Part of keeping the kids level-headed is by stressing the importance of academics and also using people skills. The main people skill is teamwork, especially in athletics, Rumbaoa said.
“(I tell the kids) you need your teammates, whether you like it or not.” Rumbaoa said. “The team depends on you, as an individual, to get as skilled as you can, and you depend on the team to work together.”
A coach instilling these tools in an athlete at a young age will hopefully motivate them to play in college.
“Having that (playing a D1 sport) on my resume was a huge advantage,” Rumbaoa said, “And because of that, I think I carry more weight and am listened to more, not because I am a doctor, but because I played a sport in college.”
Rumbaoa believes funding should definitely be available for all athletes, and he wants to encourage them to play college athletics and to use their athletic abilities to try to pay for college.
Justin Hahn, who has coached youth football for nine years and worked a few years with wrestling and baseball, believes that funding is not as much of an issue in certain sports as it is in others.
“I don’t think the funding issues affect football as much as other sports, like baseball.” Hahn said. “In Columbia, there’s a (football) team full of lower income families, and they are able to do that through fundraisers.”
There is also an innate skill component to football that sports like baseball and wrestling don’t possess.
“There’s no specialized training in football like there is in baseball,” Hahn said. “You don’t need to practice as much for football at a young age. Most of football is running and catching, things that kids are born with.”
Even though cost may be less of an obstacle, other resources like transportation could be scarce.
“Last year I had two kids that I had to pick up for every practice.” Hahn said, “We got closer together, and developed a friendship.”
The idea of sports bringing people closer together isn’t necessarily limited to only player to player relationship, but in Hahn’s situation – coach to player.
JD Coffman, athletics director at Hickman High School, has coached for 25 years. Throughout his time at Hickman, he always coached at least one sport, but up to three at a time at some points. Coaching runs in his blood.
“My father was a high school coach and athletic director,” Coffman said. “Watching my father coach, watching his patience and seeing the relationships he builds with the athletes helped shape the type of coach I am.”
Hickman and the other public schools in the Columbia area do not require a start-up fee for athletes to enroll in programs with the school. Since there is no direct financial connection to start, it’s more focused on effort from the athletes.
“It comes down to the kids coming out and trying,” Coffman said.
However, Coffman believes there is an advantage for some students.
“People that have the financial resources and give their kids those experiences have an advantage of these who don’t have those resources,” Coffman said. “Even though there may be an experience advantage, the kids’ determination, effort and goals aren’t determined by the money that you have.”