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AARON BRAND/Alachua County Today

Mike Petersen invited local football players to his Bring It! camp.

BY AARON BRAND/Today Reporter

ALACHUA — Former Gator and NFL linebacker Mike Peterson knows that there are many parallels between football and life. Beneath a blistering sun at the Hal Brady Recreation Complex on Friday evening, the Alachua native hosted his 13th annual “Bring It” football camp, designed to teach kids valuable lessons on and off the field.

The central theme to Peterson’s July 10 camp was that hard work pays off. Peterson and his brother Adrian, a former NFL running back himself, worked hard and enjoyed lengthy NFL careers.

Football camps led by former college and NFL players or coaches are not rare. But what made Peterson’s camp special is that it was held in small-town Alachua and was 100 percent free for those attending.

“I remember all these camps where they charge this amount of money and there was no way I would dare ask my mom and dad to go to one of those,” Peterson said. “So I always said when I get the chance, I’m going to have my own camp, invite my own NFL guys and not charge a penny.”

Players like Teako Brown, Michael Clayton, Cornelius Ingram, Keith Kelsey, Travis McGriff, Alex Smith, Marcus Stroud, Gerard Warren and George Wynn volunteered as coaches as more than 150 campers went through four quarters of football-related training activities designed to teach them about the game in a fun way.

In the coaches meeting before the camp began, Peterson told his former teammates that Alachua was special to him and his brother, and that the most important thing was to make the day special and fun for the kids.

Adrian, a former Chicago Bear and eight-year NFL veteran who played in Super Bowl XLI, said that doing the event in Alachua was very important to him and his brother.

“It’s a homecoming,” he said. “Growing up, we didn’t have this. We saw guys on TV, but that’s as far as it went. We didn’t get to be coached by them; we didn’t get to give them a high-five. I think when you’re successful, if you don’t give back, I don’t think it’s worth it.”

After posing for a group picture and a pre-game talk with the campers in the endzone, game day began the same way it does in NFL stadiums: A rigorous and spirited stretching routing led by the coaches to help prevent injury and boost morale.

In the first quarter, campers alternated between four training stations, designed to help get and keep in shape. Push-ups, sit-ups and agility exercises made fun by doing them alongside athletes who have made it to the top.

“Who thinks they can beat me in a push-up contest?” Current Cincinnati Bengals tight end Alex Smith asked the kids at his station.

Smith also taught kids some receiving routes and threw them the ball. Smith’s team competed against former Gator and NFL wide receiver Travis McGriff and former NFL receiver Michael Clayton’s group in a first-to-ten-catches game.

Smith, who used to host football camps in the Bahamas where his dad is from, said that events like this are important to small communities.

“When it’s a small community like this and they see that so many people from around this area have been successful, I think that gives other people hope that they too can also be successful,” he said. “Just coming back and bringing guys that have been where these kids have been at one time and made it where they made it, I think that definitely gives them something to work for.”

In the second quarter, the focus shifted to offense. Running back drills with Adrian Peterson and former Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Marcus Stroud.

“Keep that ball high and tight,” Stroud told the campers as they ran towards him. “Don’t let me strip it from you.”

At station No. 1, campers learned how to throw the ball from Cornelius Ingram, a former NFL player, Gator tight end and Hawthorne High School quarterback. Ingram is also about to begin his first season as Hawthorne’s head football coach.

“Before the camp I was looking around at all the local talent that’s passed through here,” Ingram said. “Mike and Adrian come from Alachua; I come from Hawthorne; Gerard Warren comes from Lake Butler; Mike Nattiel comes from Newberry. These are all small-town guys who made it big and had successful careers.”

Defensively, campers were taught the proper way to tackle by hitting tackling dummies. At another station, the kids were taught defensive-line techniques to get around offensive linemen and reach the quarterback.

Three-time All-Pro defensive tackle Marcus Stroud led defensive line drills while Peterson held linebacker drills. Between the two men are three Pro Bowls, more than 1,300 tackles and 50 sacks.

After the final whistle blew, Peterson gathered everyone in the endzone for his closing remarks as the sun began to set on a memorable day for the campers.

“The most important thing to making it to the NFL is school work,” Peterson said. “If you remember one thing, remember that.”

After the football portion was over, the players and kids hung out at the Hal Brady Recreation Complex and ate pizza from Dominos and barbeque from Sonny’s.

Camp Director Jill Thomas noted that the event wasn’t just about football, but also had fun activities for everyone.