Local football players get a far from basic training with Marines

Marine Staff Sgt. Jamal Queen, of Baltimore, leads Diamond Flight Football Camp participants in exercises while a steady rain falls on the field at Mount St. Joseph.
Marine Staff Sgt. Jamal Queen, of Baltimore, leads Diamond Flight Football Camp participants in exercises while a steady rain falls on the field at Mount St. Joseph. (Steve Ruark, The Baltimore Sun)

Before stepping onto the football field at Mount St. Joseph High School on Saturday, the Diamond Flight Camp coaching staff made a decision. It would cut the event's workout sessions short and head indoors for a respite from the heavy rains expected later that morning.

But when a light drizzle became a downpour around 11 a.m., no one retreated inside. Not until the camp's 256 participants completed the scheduled warm-ups and drills.


"With all the rain that was going on, nobody ever let down intensity," said Oscar Dillard, the event's head football coach. "And that's what this whole camp is about: Playing at the highest level, playing at 100 percent at all times."

Makes sense. After all, this was no typical football camp. It was part of the Semper Fidelis Football Program, a joint venture between theU.S. Marine Corpsand Junior Rank Sports. The two-day event, which concludes Sunday afternoon, aims to develop complete student athletes. It provides expert football instruction, while reinforcing the Marines' values of honor, courage and commitment.


Shaon Berry began developing the camp six years ago when he founded Junior Rank Sports. He wanted to put together an all-star game to recognize high school athletes for their on-field performance, character and academic accomplishments.

That vision flourished when the Marines signed on as a co-sponsor last year. The first Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl — featuring the camp's most exemplary student athletes across the country — was held last January, and Diamond Flight Camps has already grown to include more than 20 U.S. cities.

So why such a rapid development? For the same reasons the Marines have established a reputation as the country's premier fighting unit.

"It's really well run and organized," said Zac Evans, a senior running back at Coughlin High School in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. "All the camps I've been to before this have been more chaotic. This one, they really stop to teach — not just about football, but about what it takes to do well in life."

Local Marines have an active presence throughout the camp's activities. They offer leadership training during afternoon workshops and take the campers — which include 180 high schoolers and 76 middle schoolers — through military-style daily warm-ups.

It's a unique opportunity for the Marines to show area students and parents that they're more than a fighting entity, that they're an integral part of community outreach. It's a chance to spread a message, and remind them that sports and military aren't all that different. They share the same team-first mentality.

"I think it's a natural propensity of a young man or woman, someone whose been a part of a team — something bigger than or greater than themselves — to want to join the service," said Maj. Christopher S. Conner, commanding officer of the Marine Corps' Baltimore recruiting station. "They understand they're going to get that same feeling from being a part of the service."

And while military recruitment is an aspect of the Diamond Flight Camp, college recruitment is a chief reason many students came from as far away as Minnesota and Texas for this weekend's events.

Each of the camp's 20 coaches have strong ties to NCAA football programs and are more than willing to make a phone call if an athlete impresses them. They'll even go as far as sending tape to coaches, or providing links to YouTube highlights.

Of course, given the nature of the event, the coaches always make sure to include character assessments in their scouting reports.

"We go on the three core values: character, discipline and academic excellence," said Dillard, who has coached seven NFL first-round draft picks, including Cam Newton and Jamal Lewis as high schoolers. "So if they have those three items, we will let those folks know."

But on Saturday, players said they weren't overly concerned with college or the military. They were just enjoying a quality day of football, of learning from the country's best.


Even if it meant getting drenched in the rain.

"I've never experienced anything like it and, I've really like the experience," said Mike Williams, a senior defensive end at Archbishop Spalding currently mulling scholarship offers from Maryland, Boston College and Rutgers, among others. "It's just all new to me. I've always been in situations where I had to like lead and stuff, but it was nothing like this."


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