It’s a hot, muggy and gray afternoon in Elkridge, the dark sky threatening rain. It’s an afternoon, in other words, when you’d expect two college-educated, 20-something young men to find something better to do than run around an open field with a rambunctious group of young teens.
But not Mark Covington, 23, and Justin Guy, 25. The former Howard High School football teammates are doing exactly what they want to be doing. And they’re doing it for free.
Covington and Guy are fitness buffs who make a living as trainers. But their real passion is helping young boys and girls avoid the trouble and the bad habits they’ve seen ruin the lives of so many people.
Last fall, the pair founded 4thQTR Inc., a nonprofit that uses sports as a vehicle to mentor local youths. The idea is to help students in the “fourth quarter of life,” which Covington and Guy use as a metaphor for the pivotal moments young people face on and off the field.
Their organization got its first gig this spring, a weekly after-school program for students at Elkridge Landing Middle School. The founders held hour-long sessions Monday afternoons from early May to mid-June, during which as many as 18 students gathered outside for exercise and to run football drills, interspersed with big brotherly advice and help with schoolwork. The program focuses on four areas: academic excellence; drug and alcohol awareness; healthy habits and physical fitness; and leadership skill-building through sports.
The pair chose football as their mentoring tool because it’s the sport they love most, and because, they say, it teaches valuable lessons about leadership, teamwork and dedication. Both played varsity football at Howard High. Covington also played at Gettysburg College, while Guy started the men’s club flag football team at Towson University.
The two lost contact during college but reconnected afterward, when both were working in the fitness industry in Howard County. When they realized they both wanted something more from their jobs — something that appealed to their entrepreneurial, creative sides and their desire to help young people through the perils of adolescence — they came up with 4thQTR.
“Even in high school, Mark and I realized there wasn’t really an organization dedicated to making sure kids were staying on the right path,” Guy says. “Just watching so many people go down the wrong path, it got us thinking.”
Guy grew up with a close family member who was addicted to drugs, and the brother of one of his best friends died of a drug overdose. “His family was shattered,” he says.
Covington’s best friend in middle school, meanwhile, became “a shell of his former self” when he got involved in illegal drugs, Covington says, dropping plans to attend the Naval Academy. “Before drugs, he was one of the nicest kids you’ll ever meet, had good grades and so on,” Covington says. “Once the drugs started, that all changed.”
Both also believe in the importance of mentorship. Covington says that if he’d had a youthful mentor to steer him in the right direction growing up, he could have played football at a Division I school and possibly in the NFL.
“It’s hard to listen to just your parents when you’re young,” Covington says. “But if you have a young adult telling you, ‘Hey, I think you could really do something good,’ you’re more likely to focus your efforts. … We think that if the support is coming from young mentors who really believe in you, that no matter what you want to be, a plumber or a football player or whatever, you’ll want to be the best you can be.”
For Guy, mentors came in the form of coaches throughout his school years, and he’s grown more aware of their value over the past couple of years while working at Live Now Fitness in Elkridge and Okinawian Karate Dojo in Ellicott City. The owners of both businesses, Bruce Jones and Stanley Crump, respectively, helped teach him how to set up a nonprofit. (Both men are on 4thQTR’s board of directors.)
Also, Guy says, teaching an after-school karate program with Crump has shown him how much mentors can mean to young people. “It’s surprising how many of the kids I teach, you run into when you’re out, say at a grocery store, and they come up and give you a high-five. You see how you can really affect somebody, and it’s pretty cool.”
That impact is at the heart of the program’s mission, Guy adds.
“We’re not training the next Ray Lewis,” he says. “We just want to make these guys better men.”
The founders hope the spring’s after-school program is just the start for their nonprofit.
Eventually, they want to offer scholarships to area youngsters to attend their mentoring programs and to offer the programs countywide — and someday, perhaps, even statewide and nationwide.
They also dream of opening their own facility, where youngsters can work on their game with skilled coaches. The idea was inspired by one of their local heroes, Atholton High School graduate Steve Sclafani, who runs Factory Athletics, the 20-year-old, nationally known training program for young athletes in Columbia.
It’s an ambitious agenda for two recent college grads, but Covington and Guy already have a few people in their corner.
“We think it’s great to see other young people devoting their time and energy to helping children through sports,” Sclafani says. “Glad we could be a part of their inspiration.”
Elkridge Landing Principal Gina Cash says she was thrilled when Guy, who attended the school and helps coach the Elkridge Hurricanes youth football team, approached her about launching 4thQTR there.
“It’s great to see kids coming back and wanting to pay forward what they experienced growing up here,” she says in an email. “Mentoring programs — especially ones led by men — are extremely important. Many kids don’t have access to nearly enough ... role models in their lives. Having someone who has been where you are as a middle schooler and can speak from experience about what it takes to be successful is very powerful.”
Howard High teacher Bruce Strunk, who coached Guy and Covington in high school, said he was “very proud” of his former students. “They’re using athletics, in this case football, as a tool to be proactive rather than reactive,” says Strunk, who serves on the nonprofit’s board of directors. “… I think they have a lot of energy, and I think they’re going to be very successful in their endeavors.”
Middle school students, he added, are at “a very impressionable age. The more positive influences that they have, and the more they’re doing positive activities, the better.”
Covington and Guy also have made believers among their first crop of young participants.
“It seems like a real good program to help kids,” says Khabir Mumin, 15, taking a break from football drills on that hot June afternoon. “It gets us focused on something productive.”
“I like playing sports, I like exercise and staying in shape, and I like connecting with friends, so it’s good, yeah,” says Jerome Brunson, 13. “I’d do it again — anytime.”