They like Steelers' Ike Taylor
GRETNA, La. -- The kids lined up, smiling and bright-eyed and hanging onto every word from Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor.
Taylor's seventh annual Face Me Ike football camp at Arden Cahill Academy in suburban New Orleans was moved indoors Friday because of lightning and rain, providing a small measure of relief on a scalding day. The locale hardly dampened the enthusiasm of the adoring student body, mesmerized by a hometown hero with fame, fortune and a pair of Super Bowl rings.
For Taylor, it provided another opportunity to give back to a community that prepared him for unfathomable success. It followed a pattern of community service that has been traced by many athletes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the recent oil spill.
"People from New Orleans, we're caring people. People are starting to recognize what we do for our city. It's one big family here," said Taylor, who played defensive end at nearby Abramson High and attended Louisiana-Lafayette. "You can have all the money you want, but all these kids want is our time.
"When Hurricane Katrina came through, that really touched me -- seeing how kids had to mature at an early age, had to help raise their families (at) 10, 12 years old, standing on top of cars."
Athletes in or from New Orleans seem to have a special affinity for giving back. They understand how much their support means to the people who have experienced more than their fair share of hard times and grief.
Saints defensive end Will Smith said it's pointless to have so much influence if you don't use it to help others. When the Saints were dispatched to San Antonio after Hurricane Katrina, they visited New Orleans residents who had taken shelter in Houston.
More recently, the Saints visited Buras, La., to meet fishermen and shrimpers who are struggling financially after the oil spill. The Saints also announced they will raffle a Super Bowl ring to raise money for those affected.
"I think the guys who are from New Orleans -- whether they're born and raised here or whether they've become part of the community being a member of the Saints -- all seem to develop a passion for the community, for the city, for their teams," said agent Joel Segal, who attended Taylor's camp and represents several players with New Orleans ties, including Taylor, Smith and the Saints' Reggie Bush. "It invokes a special feeling of community, of being proud to be here, considering the trials and tribulations the city's been through."
Steelers assistant head coach John Mitchell also attended the camp. He said athletes don't always realize how much their involvement means to fans.
"Athletes make a lot of money. A lot of everyday people don't make a lot of money, and they need something to keep going," Mitchell said. "When they can get behind a team or a player, it adds a little joy to their lives. It can be a big deal."
The New Orleans City Council yesterday honored Taylor for donating 1,000 turkeys last Thanksgiving. He also was lauded by the mayor's office in recognition of his "many contributions to the community and the city's recovery."
Taylor said he traveled to New Orleans on his day off to deliver turkeys with the blessing of coach Mike Tomlin.
"New Orleans people are down-to-earth, genuine people," he said. "It's a kindhearted city, and I've got a soft heart for people in need. If you're here long enough, it will rub off on you."
Arden Cahill, co-founder of the academy, said permitting Taylor to host the camp (which included light football instruction, a visit from the Xavier (La.) University women's basketball team, a mini-car show and full-course meal, New Orleans-style) on campus benefits her students.
"It's important for those children to see what someone can accomplish," Cahill said. "It's very uplifting."
The work of Taylor and other athletes hasn't gone unnoticed.
"We have the Saints, but it means even more when a pro athlete from here gives back," said Gary Ballier of the New Orleans Fire Department.
Cornerback Deshea Townsend, who played 12 seasons with the Steelers, attended Taylor's camp with second-year corner and New Orleans native Keenan Lewis. Townsend said it's a shame that athletes' good deeds are overshadowed when others find trouble.
"This shows how NFL players make the front page for bad reasons, but this (camp) is what it's all about," he said. "The main thing is letting kids know you care about them -- that if they set goals and have dreams, they can achieve."