Summer is here — and hundreds of youngsters spent a sizzling Saturday football camping on Wendy’s Field at Daylis Stadium.
The focus was on fundamentals and having fun as the kids hit the tackling dummies, raced through cones and hauled in passes under a blazing sun at the popular Dwan Edwards Elite Football Camp, which has become an annual occurrence in Billings.
This is the fifth year for the camp, which is hosted by Edwards, a 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive tackle with the Buffalo Bills, who grew up in nearby Columbus.
The camp was free of charge for all participants, with close to 300 players, in grades five through eight, taking part under the watchful eye of Edwards and a half-dozen current and former NFL players.
“It’s been good,” Edwards said of all the hustle and bustle. “We’re trying to make sure that guys stay cool and stay hydrated. It’s a little warm out here, so we’re just trying to keep them busy, keep them motivated and having fun.”
The day was a big hit with the kids, who were decked out in white camp t-shirts and shorts as they rotated through stations, smacking pads with relish, learning to block and running for daylight after making catches.
“We got a football. I got to meet all the NFL players,” noted Dallas Cooper, an 11-year-old from Three Forks with sweat on his brow. “We did some cool drills. We’re going to get autographs. They gave us some water. We got to practice defense and offense, running back and linebacker.”
Mason Hayashi, 11, of Billings had a fistful of autographed pictures of Edwards to share with his friends.
“It was really fun,” he said of his time out on the field.
Defensive back Derrick Martin was on hand for the second straight year. A free agent at the moment, Martin has won Super Bowl rings in back-to-back seasons with the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants — and he brought them with him.
John Smith, who coached Edwards at Columbus High School, was also patrolling the field and complimenting his former player.
“It’s a big honor to get to do this with Dwan,” Smith said. “He’s shown so much humility in the sense of letting these kids know that he cares about them and that he wants to make an impact on as many of them as he can. Not only as a player, but helping them to understand what kind of people they need to be.”
Besides Martin and Smith, Edwards was also assisted by cornerback Brandon Browner of the Seattle Seahawks, cornerback Drayton Florence of the Denver Broncos, former San Francisco 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Richard Seigler, along with Justin Green, who coaches the running backs at the University of Montana, and Aric Williams, a defensive backs coach with the Grizzlies.
“It’s awesome, man,” Browner said of the camp. “The kids love it. I love it. It’s great competition. There’s a great group of guys out here to help. With Derrick Martin, Dwan Edwards and myself, there’s a lot of expertise out here.”
“It’s just fun watching the kids have fun,” Edwards observed. “Seeing them interact with some of these guys I brought out here. Most of these guys are my friends, so it’s fun to bring them out here and get to hang out with them and just have a good time with the kids.”
While it was a non-contact camp, Edwards also noted that an emphasis placed on proper technique at a young age can help lead to a cleaner, safer game in the future.
“Especially with all the talk on the concussions and what not, it definitely can be a dangerous game,” he said. “But through fundamentals and the kids knowing the right way to do things, I think that definitely reduces the risk ... gets them to play the game the right way.”
Edwards, who has been playing in the NFL since 2004, is heading into his third season with the Bills. He started 13 games a year ago — and defensive line is considered one of Buffalo’s strengths for this coming season.
Defensive end Mario Williams, a former No. 1 draft pick in the NFL, was a key free-agent acquisition this offseason for the Bills, who are looking to bounce back from a 6-10 season.
“We’re loaded at defensive line,” Edwards said. “Even with the times I was in Baltimore, I don’t know if we’ve ever been this deep. The whole one group and two group ... anybody could be a starter in the NFL.
“It’s a great bunch of guys and it looks good on paper, but we’ve obviously got a lot to prove still and a lot of work in front of us,” he said. “It is kind of scary to think how good we could be.”
For Edwards, training camp begins in 26 days, with the Bills opening camp July 26 at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, N.Y. Buffalo plays its season-opener at the New York Jets on Sept. 9.
“I’m excited,” Edwards said. “You can definitely feel the excitement, even around the city of Buffalo and the fans. It’s probably like nothing they’ve felt in Buffalo for a while.
“We finally feel like we’ve got some of the pieces that we need to go out and have a great season and make a playoff run. That’s definitely what’s exciting.”