Keion Carpenter walks through the gates of his former high school, Woodlawn, making his way to a tunnel under the bleachers. He has made this walk hundreds of times before, including places like the Georgia Dome in Atlanta and Lane Stadium at Virginia Tech.
The retired NFL defensive back who now runs the Shutdown Academy — a non-profit academic institution that offers sports — bobs his head to the Jay-Z blaring from the speakers on the field and watches a 12-year-old from New Jersey break out on a long run.
Carpenter walks over to the sidelines to join the other two Shutdown Academy founders, current New York Jets linebacker Aaron Maybin and Houston Texans wide receiver Bryant Johnson, snapping pictures with kids and talking football with adults who used to watch him every Sunday in the fall.
The three Baltimore natives stand in front of the bleachers that hold hundreds of fans and witness the success of their first Youth All-Star Bowl, a tournament that brought in youth teams from up and down the East Coast to Baltimore — including a team from Virginia run by Eagles quarterback Michael Vick.
"I was one of these kids," Carpenter said. "If we could make it without this, these kids definitely have a chance, and their paths will be that much easier."
Shutdown Academy has offered a summer camp in each of the past four years called Commitment 4 Change, but the All-Star Bowl is in its first year. The trio got the idea for their own tournament after the academy traveled to Atlanta last year to play against Deion Sanders and his camp — the first time many of the kids had left the Baltimore area.
"I had nothing like this growing up," Maybin said. "We basically said, 'When we were kids, what would we have needed?' The things we didn't have, we tried to find a way to make sure the kids that we are working with don't have to go through the same things we did."
Even the concept of football in June was foreign to Johnson when he was growing up. Football was only played during the fall and winter — there were no offseason tournaments or training when he was a kid.
So when he was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in 2003, Johnson recognized that the path he and his fellow Baltimore natives took to get there wasn't easy. Maybin did the same thing in 2009 when he was drafted by the Buffalo Bills, as did Carpenter when he retired in 2005. With Shutdown Academy, the players have been trying to make that path easier for local children.
"The kids just need this so bad, and I feel so good about being able to do this with Keion and Aaron," Johnson said. "It just makes us feel so much better. Sometimes, I feel like we are getting more out of it than they are."
Most importantly to Carpenter, the academy isn't driven purely by athletics. The tutoring and mentoring are most satisfying to him, and eventually, Carpenter, Maybin and Johnson hope to turn the after-school program into a full-fledged charter school for elementary and middle school kids that fully primes them for high school and beyond.
"It's about getting to college, not winning football games," Carpenter said. "We can teach these kids football in our sleep, but I need to get every kid that comes through Shutdown Academy into college. That's my mission."
Carpenter pounds his hands together before raising his eyes and looking out onto the field.
"This city needs it more than anybody."
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