Leaders on the field can also be leaders in their communities.
That is the key message U.S. Army All-American Bowl soldier mentors impart on the high school football athletes visiting the San Antonio-based Boysville, a residential care facility for children.
The players – the nation’s young football elite – spent their post-practice afternoon challenging the elementary-aged children on their math skills in a friendly competition.
But, beyond the smiles and games was ultimately another critical experience: how to be a leader in their own communities.
"Sometimes when you are part of an organization, you’re part of something that is a little bit bigger than yourself," said Sgt. 1st Class Keith Johnson, an Army All-American Bowl soldier mentor and a senior noncommissioned officer with the 1st Battalion, Army Reserve Careers Division.
Distinguished Army soldiers are paired with the student athletes each year at the Army All-American Bowl as soldier mentors to support the development of future leaders.
Ninety top high school football players are invited each year to the bowl game, as well as another 125 top high school marching band and color guard students.
"Our job is to promote the similarities between the Army and the role that they have put themselves in with their hard work and promote their leadership skills to give back to the community," Johnson said.
He also said the biggest part of that lesson is remembering to always think bigger than an individual.
"These [Boysville] kids might not remember the names of who came out here today, but they will remember the Army was here today and the Army spent time with them, and it is the same thing for the players from the Army All-American Bowl," Johnson said.
Adding. "You always want to promote the best aspects of your professionalism and the organization you are part of."
Boysville, founded in 1943 to provide a home and support for children in south Texas, has become an annual stop for players at the Army All-American Bowl.
Interacting with the children has a unique impact on the players, compared to the other week-long festivities surrounding the premiere game.
John Simpson, a Team East offensive lineman from Fort Dorchester High School in North Charleston, S.C., said when he was younger, he looked up to successful football players but never had the opportunity to meet those role models.
"Just spending time with kids who don’t often get attention is amazing," Simpson said.
Fellow Team East offensive lineman Clark Yarbrough agreed.
"Their faces light up when you say something to them and give them a pat on the back," said Yarbrough from the Woodberry Forest School in Woodberry Forest, Va. "It is an awesome feeling."
"It is cool to see how such a little act can go such a long way with these kids," said Team East long snapper John Shannon, from Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Ill.
He added, "I mean, coming here for an hour and playing – building stuff – it can really improve their day and make them so much happier."
Boysville provides services for south Texas children from infancy to adulthood. Visiting role models play a regular part of the establishing a safe haven for children to develop and be academically successful.
"The kids love when people come and visit, but they especially love it when they are teenagers who are closer to their own age," said Ann Kolacki, the volunteer coordinator for Boysville.
All of the youths at Boysville are in foster care in Texas, meaning many of the students are also socially or academically behind when they arrive at the campus, Kolacki said.
Volunteers have a critical place socializing the kids in a positive way.
"Kids who are newer to the campus might not be as eager to get involved, but the kids who have been here and gotten comfortable – they know where their next meal is coming from and not worried about having a roof over their heads – are actually really outgoing, friendly and happy to be around other people. It is really great to see," Kolacki said.
Adding, "Having high school students and the soldiers come in to spend time with our kids and encourage them means a lot – it really does. Because, really, what we want to do is give them a hope for the future."
Sgt. Brandon Hubbard