The kids at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium on this overcast July afternoon were hustling from station to station under the direction of South Dakota State football players, coaches and two guys earning their living playing in the NFL.
The benefit of spending time in the company of Dallas Goedert and Nate Gerry, two South Dakotans in partnerships with Sanford Health, was easy to see. It was also clear that these NFL players, separated by size, strength and speed from the kids shuffling through drills on the stadium turf, had a lot of the same ideas about how to have a good time on a football field.
“It’s awesome — Sanford does a great job of putting on these camps and getting them set up,” said Goedert, a Britton, South Dakota, native, and former South Dakota State star who is now a Philadelphia Eagles tight end. “I got the easiest job here. I just show up and have fun with the kids.”
It was the second free Sanford POWER youth football camp in two days for Goedert, who was part of an Aberdeen clinic at Northern State University the day before with Minnesota Viking C.J. Ham and Denver Bronco linebacker Derrek Tuszka.
Just being on the same field with people you can watch on national television was enough to entertain the young athletes learning more about the sport. These Sanford-sponsored NFL players, however, also delivered on enthusiasm and charisma.
“The kids are excited to see you so they have a lot of energy,” Goedert said. “Most of them are really into football so you can throw pretty much anything at them and they’re going to have fun with it. If you’re having a good time, they’re going to have a good time.”
PE teacher to NFL player
Two weeks earlier Ham was part of a clinic at the Sanford Fieldhouse with the Sioux Falls Storm indoor football team. Because this event was aimed at kindergarteners through eighth graders, it presented a wide range of ages, skill sets and attention spans. It was nothing this Augustana University graduate couldn’t handle, however.
When Ham was younger, there were always people around showing him the right way, he said. In some cases it involved the right way to play football but often the message included positive and valuable life lessons about everything else, too.
“Growing up, I was involved in a lot of youth programs — things like afterschool programs and boys and girls clubs,” Ham said a few minutes after he finished signing autographs at the Fieldhouse. “These people had such a great impact on my life. So it’s been my mission, too. I want to give back to youth the way it was given to me.”
For Ham, it begins with an appreciation for what he has. His route to becoming an established NFL player with Minnesota was unlikely. Though he had an outstanding college career at Augustana, he was not drafted as a senior and couldn’t even land a free agent contract to attend training camp until he’d first made an impression at a rookie spring tryout.
He was preparing to become a physical education teacher and high school coach when the Vikings saw his potential. He’s since played five years in the league with a Pro Bowl selection after the 2019 season.
His intended career path prior to the NFL makes him well-suited for being part of a football clinic — even the ones that include kindergartners.
“The best thing about it is seeing the smile on these kids’ faces,” Ham said. “To be in a position to come out here and make a kid’s day — I won’t be able to do that forever. I don’t take that for granted. It’s truly a blessing to put a smile on your face and make sure when they go home they’re having a good day. Obviously playing football is what I love — to be able to share some of that knowledge with them is part of that.”
More than football
Gerry, a former Sioux Falls Washington High School and Nebraska Cornhusker star, was part of a Philadelphia Eagles team that won Super Bowl 52 in Minneapolis. He connects to kids easily, helped along by his own fascination at the same age at Sanford football clinics.
He demonstrated this by answering questions from the kids at a three-a-minute rate. Nothing was out of bounds when it came to those questions. Who had he tackled? Who was the best player in the NFL? Who were his favorite teammates? It never stopped.
“I used to be one of them,” he said with a smile. “I remember running around the celebrity football camps with my dad (Brian, head athletic trainer at Augustana). It’s great to be on the other side of the fence now and show kids that these things are possible. I remember seeing guys like Chad Greenway and Ben Leber and Adam Vinatieri — all South Dakota boys who made it to the NFL. I’d look at them in awe at these clinics. It’s nice to be on the other side and to be able to answer those questions.”
At the end of the session at Dykhouse Stadium, the kids gathered around SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier at the center of the field. After a few words he invited Goedert to address the group.
“I want you to know that you can do anything you want in life,” Goedert told them. “You can go to the NFL — that was always my dream. I put my head down and I worked. I dreamed big and I was able to achieve it. You can do that, too. … Whatever you find that you really love and are passionate about, put your marbles in that basket. Be what you want to be and do as much as you can do.
“You’re the future of America,” he continued. “You might be president. You might be a tight end for the Jackrabbits. I’m excited to watch you guys grow.”
Goedert’s closing words confirmed it’s about a lot more than football. Creating opportunities to learn from elite professional athletes is an ongoing enterprise for Sanford Health with an impressive history. Pairing kids with their heroes never gets old.
“Sanford continues to show much they care,” Ham said. “By putting on these free clinics all over the place they show how much they care not just about the development of youth and sports, but also development as human beings.”
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