Riki Ellison, a former Arizona resident who attended high school at Mingus Union, is working on a program called the NFL Impact program, sponsored by the NFL and his foundation. It is an outreach program that focuses on youth living in inner cities and on Native American lands.
Founded by Ellison, a 10-year veteran of the NFL and a USC alumnus, the program's focus is to make a permanent and positive impact in the life of disadvantaged male youth of our nation's inner cities through the engagement and development of positive community role models, academics and the lesions on citizenship, fair play and the NFL. The program is geared toward sixth through eighth graders, but kids from ages 7-13 have attended.
The Impact Program's first camp was held in Ft. Defiance at Window Rock High School. This was the first type of training camp involving Native Americans for the NFL. The second was held at USC and worked mainly with disadvantaged inner city youths. Both camps were huge successes and held in July.
About 80 youths participated; 65 from Arizona and 15 from New Mexico at the camp in Ft. Defiance. The camp ran for about 4-5 hours per day.
The second camp held at USC and was a much larger camp, with the full use of the University facilities, not only for football, but for education as well. Because of the additional resources at hand, the camp ran for nine hours per day with a staff of 32 teachers, coaches and tutors available to the kids. The mentor to youth ratio was up around 3 to 10, which really personalized the learning experience for each kid, both on the field and in the classroom.
"We were able to teach in different ways, as opposed to traditional school to make it appeal to the kids more," Ellison said.
The curriculum includes English, science and math, but taught in ways that the kids could identify with.
"At USC we would teach the kids how to figure stats for football. Then we would take what they learned and apply it in the classroom," Ellison said.
Both programs proved that there is a need to support and direct the youth in a positive direction and that there is much community support behind the program. Last weekend the kids who had participated at the Ft. Defiance camp and their parents attended an Arizona cardinals training camp in Flagstaff and had the opportunity to see professional football players at work. It was also an excellent example to show the kids that if you set a goal as these athletes did to become professional football players, that they can reach their goals.
The Impact Program has taken Ellison a couple of years to put together and with cooperation with the NFL through a generous grant, the kids can participate in the camps free of charge. Not only that, they get free gear including jerseys, shoulder pads, helmets and NFL bags to put it all in.
"It's like Christmas," Ellison said.
Ellison has had a long and successful career in football. His vision for this program began in 2001 and he has run with it ever since. This year was the first time he was actually able to coordinate camps and the success of it has been more than he expected.
"The camp at Ft. Defiance was better than I ever thought it would be," Ellison said. "The community involvement was excellent."
Ellison moved to the Verde Valley in 1968. He attended Beaver Creek School at Rimrock, then Camp Verde Elementary School and finally Southwestern Academy at the Beaver Creek Ranch before heading to Mingus High School, where he played one year of football in 1974.
When his family moved to Tucson, he continued his football career at Amphitheatre High School, playing in the linebacker position. After high school, he signed with USC. There he played for five seasons where they won the Rose Bowl twice and a National Championship.
In 1983 he was drafted by the NFL on the San Francisco 49ers and played on the team from '83-89, winning three Super Bowls in the process. Ellison was coached by Hall of Fame head coach Bill Walsh.
"He built a team, not only on skill, but he also made sure that the players were smart," Ellison said. "I have compassion for young kids in the intercity and reservation and I want them to learn the same thing."
From 1990-93 he played for the Los Angeles Raiders until retirement from his 10-year professional career. All three years the Raiders made post-season appearances under the coaching of Art Shell.
Football has been a major part of Ellison's life. The opportunity to give back to his community as well as others has been a goal and a dream that he has seen flourish into reality. His goal is to be able to hold camps such as the one at Ft. Defiance and USC, in every town where professional football teams reside.
"I want to hold the camps during the summer, when school activities are over," Ellison said. "We want to be able to create mentors for the kids and help them and guide them. Usually they come from single family homes and we want to help them have more of a male influence in their lives."
Every year Ellison will have to bring his project before the NFL for grant funding. Each time he will try to make this program bigger and better and reach the youths of America that can really benefit from being off the streets and in a program that not only teaches them about football, but more important, it teaches that education and life skills are the most important thing a kid can learn.