On Day 120 of the NFL lockout, Dwan Edwards was out on Wendy’s Field at Daylis Stadium enjoying a sunny Saturday of football fun.
The 30-year-old starting defensive end for the Buffalo Bills, who grew up in Columbus, was conducting his free Dwan Edwards Elite Football Camp for the fourth year — and was surrounded by hundreds of youngsters and assisted by several NFL standouts.
“It’s good to be back,” he said during a break in the action. “It seems like they’re making some headway (in the labor dispute), but in the meantime I can come out here and show these kids a good time and hopefully inspire them and get them to follow their dreams as well.”
His assistants included a collection of current and former NFL players, featuring defensive lineman Haloti Ngata of the Baltimore Ravens and linebacker Nick Barnett of the Green Bay Packers.
Barnett was wearing his large Super Bowl ring from last season — and it was a thrill for the kids to look at, touch and be photographed with the glittering piece of jewelry.
“I never got an opportunity when I was growing up to go to camps like this,” Barnett said. “I can only imagine how excited the kids are. I’m excited to just be here with them and having fun.
“You kind of get back to the pure essence of the game, where it’s just fun and don’t have to worry about nothing but having fun.”
The kids, decked out in shorts and red-and-white camp T-shirts, joyfully raced around the field to five different stations, learning the proper techniques for playing offensive and defensive positions.
“This is a great deal, getting them out of the house, off the computer, off the video games and running around,” said Ngata, who was recently ranked 17th by the NFL Network on its list of Top 100 Players of 2011. “I love seeing them smile and running around and having fun.”
The tackling dummies received a real workout, and hitting the bags seemed to be one of the favorite parts of the camp, which is for fifth through eighth graders.
“Football is just one of those sports where you get to take your aggression out, be rough and it’s acceptable,” Edwards said with a smile.
“It’s really cool to be at this camp with all of the other kids and all of the NFL stars,” observed 11-year-old Ashby Graff of Billings. “That inspires me to go for the gold ... try my hardest and do what I can.”
Besides Ngata and Barnett, Edwards also had ex-Packer defensive back Derrick Martin, former Ravens and Arizona Cardinals fullback Justin Green and ex-San Francisco 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Richard Seigler helping out.
Martin (Packers) and Seigler (Steelers) also have Super Bowl rings.
“I’m jealous of each and every one of them, too,” Edwards said. “It’s a pretty special piece of hardware.”
But one of the messages from Edwards to the kids at the camp was that the NFL players “were just regular people,” who worked hard in pursuing their goals to play football professionally.
“We were kids like them at one point. It can happen,” Edwards said. “People tell you that the odds aren’t in your favor, but obviously a kid from Montana is standing right in front of them that proved it can be done.”
With around 300 kids participating, Edwards said he was appreciative of all the volunteers and sponsors who assisted in making the camp possible. At least a dozen Rocky Mountain College players also helped out with the drills.
“I’m just so blessed that I’ve got a great family,” Edwards added. “My mom does a tremendous job of just organizing a lot of stuff and getting things ready. Shoot, half my family is probably out here. My dad’s out here, aunts and uncles. It seems like in some form, everybody kind of contributes and has a little part. Parents and kids are telling me what a good time they had, so it’s all worth it.”
Overshadowing the camp, however, is the NFL labor dispute, which escalated to a lockout on March 11 and now threatens the start of training camps later this month and August’s preseason games.
Barnett said he is “very optimistic” that the issues dividing the owners and players will be settled shortly.
“I think they want a season and we want a season,” he said. “It’s just a matter of a couple of details and I think we can get this thing going. To be honest with you, it would be a big disappointment for our fans to not have a season start on time. If we let them down by doing that, then we’ve all lost.”
Edwards said he also remains hopeful the lockout’s end is near.
“I’ve kind of been hearing, you know, the possibility of maybe missing a few preseason games,” he said. “But as far as regular-season games, I can’t see us missing any. It just seems like there’s too much at stake. You’ve got to just think there’s smart people working that can figure out a way to get this all resolved.”
Said Ngata, “I think we’re all happy that we got to spend time with our families, but we know we can’t do our jobs with just (individual) training. We all know that we need to get out there and hit each other a little bit and get our bodies in football shape. We all want it to end so we can get back to that team atmosphere again.”