By Dan McLellan, Chargers.com
“Is everybody happy?” asked Chargers QB Philip Rivers. Over three hundred young voices shouted back, “H-A-P-P-Y!” Two days of football fun had began Saturday morning on the Campus of UCSD.
Boys and girls ages 7 to 14 participated in a wide array of drills at the third annual Old Spice Philip Rivers Football ProCamp. Rivers made sure the focus was on having fun as the campers enthusiastically ran among a barrage of flying footballs.
“Our culture has gotten to where at seven years old, if you don’t have every private coach in the country, then you are not trying,” Rivers said. “I didn’t put on a helmet until I was 13 years old, so there is no rush. Let these kids play. Play hide-and-seek and everything they can get their hands on to find their passion.”
The camp was run by Rod Huber, the director of ProCamps Worldwide, but it is Rivers who had the most fun as he took on the role of head coach. “The only way to do it, is to do it all the way,” Rivers said.
The level of commitment Rivers brings to the camp is not typical among professional athletes. “I do 18 of these camps every summer,” Huber said. “We left a camp two weeks ago and we had a pro who kind of walked around the whole time, shook hands, and signed autographs, but he never really engaged the kids. Rivers has never stopped. He has thrown a pass to every kid in the camp. He has run every drill that we have.”
Not only did Rivers throw a pass to each camper, he did his best to throw a completion. “I have thrown a couple that weren’t that good,” Rivers laughed. “I try to get them right back in line and say, ‘I owe you another one.’ That wouldn’t be good if they went home and said, ‘Yeah he threw me a pass, but it was six yards over my head.’”
Along with having fun, Rivers hopes the participants take away some life skills. This is why each camper is required to wear an identical light blue shirt.
“When you throw the same T-shirt on three hundred kids it doesn’t matter where you are from, what your background is, or what color you are, we are all on the same team,” Rivers explained. “That is why the game of football means to me way more than a game. It teaches you so many lessons about life.”
Wearing the same shirt also enabled over 30 foster children to blend in with the paid campers. “I have to imagine that is important to them,” Rivers said. “They often feel different. They are often picked on and made fun of. Now you can’t tell the difference. They are out here having a blast for two days.”
Helping foster children is what it is all about for Rivers. In just three short years the Rivers of Hope Foundation, created by Philip and his wife Tiffany, has made a tremendous impact.
In addition to the football camp, the Philip Rivers 5K Walk and Fun Run drew a crowd estimated at more than 7,000 with 4,000 race participants on June 16 at Liberty Station.
“It’s a community effort,” Rivers said. “The community rallied behind the 5K and the camp and raised the awareness about these foster kids.”
The two events are fundraisers for the foundation. Rivers also contributes all of his off-field earnings. The foundation has already donated over $1 million to local charities supporting foster children.
The ultimate goal is to find forever homes through adoption. “It would be worth it if we helped one kid get adopted,” Rivers said. “We have done more than that.”
The Heart Gallery, an online photo gallery and traveling kiosk featuring adoptable children, has been one of the best tools for matching foster children with adopting parents. “It’s well over double digits,” Rivers said of the children who have been adopted since the start of Rivers of Hope Foundation. “Over 70 percent of kids who are on there get adopted. It’s a great success.”
The Rivers of Hope Foundation also helps fund the Angels Foster Family Network that finds permanent or temporary homes for abandoned and abused infants and toddlers. Unfortunately, the need for this demographic is great. On average four young children a day need placement in San Diego county alone, according to assistant director Rachel Zahn.
Just In Time is another benefactor of Rivers of Hope. They provide a safety net as foster children who were never adopted transition into adulthood. “Nationally the statistics are really bleak,” program director Meredith Praniewizc explained. “One to three percent of all people who enter the foster system graduate from a four year university. Up to seventy percent of the kids who enter the foster system end up incarcerated.” Praniewizc herself was a foster child and is now studying at the University of San Diego.