William Corchado is afraid of flying, and the thought of traveling cross country has him twittering nervously, months before he even has to step on a plane. But some things are bigger than fear. In this 13-year-old's life, one of those things is football.
"I'm trying to convince my mom to give me NyQuil or something, to sleep," he said. "I do not like it . . . [but] I'm excited to see a new state, and that's the joy of it," to do it with his teammates.
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A day after Christmas, Corchado, a running back and linebacker for the Elmont Spartans youth team, and eight other youth football players from the Elmont, Freeport and Uniondale areas will fly to Houston. There, they'll practice with about 600 kids who are just like them -- the best of the best that the country has to offer.
Their smiles will be Jumbotron big.
"It was such an experience last year and this year I'm excited again," said Lasean Jones, whose son, Kaurice, was chosen to play at Dallas' new Cowboys Stadium in 2011. "Just to know that at his age, he gets to have the experience to play in that large of a stadium -- a stadium where NFL players play -- it's great. You see your son on the teletron . . . and you start calling everyone going, 'Hey! Guess what?' It's a very big deal."
Kaurice Jones, a 12-year-old linebacker from Elmont, isn't the only seasoned veteran. Most of the boys are repeat invitees, having played in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in 2010 before playing in their first NFL stadium last year. The players going this year include Rashad Tucker, Umari Taylor, Vladdimir Cange, Tyrell Robinson and Tristan Etienne of Freeport, Danny Ashley of Uniondale and Nolan Alexandre-Baker of Elmont.
The players were chosen after participating in the New York and Long Island Offense-Defense camps at St. John's University, Bryant University and Hofstra in July, said Sabrina Grant, whose son, Rashad, a quarterback/running back for the Greendale Knights, will attend the All-American game for the third year in a row.
The best player at the individual camps, as chosen by coaches, gets a direct invite to the game, said Brian Mabry, the game's football director of operations. Other highly performing players are sent to an elite camp and asked to earn a chance to play.
About 12 percent of camp participants make the games in the 14-and-under division, Mabry said. This year, that brings the total to about 660 to 700 players nationally. There are more than 40 camps in the continental United States.
"I played hard and I stood out from my teammates," said Ashley, who plays for the Uniondale Knights. "It's exciting, but it's challenging because you're playing against people you know and measuring up against them."
While the youth All-Americans take up a good chunk of the week's festivities, the crown jewel is the Offense-Defense All-American Bowl, a game that showcases the 40 best high school seniors in the nation. That's the same game whose 2007 MVP was Cam Newton.
The experience teaches dedication, said Etienne, 13, a fullback/linebacker who attends Long Island Lutheran, and it underlines the fact that hard work does pay off.
"My dad always taught me the importance of being tough mentally," he said. "With football, martial arts, and I do Jiu-Jitsu, too . . . and every day, I write out what I have to do, like schoolwork. It helped me learn discipline."
"And then [at the Games], you're playing at the stadium and it's so big and everyone is looking at you," he said. "When I first found out, I was really excited. I was surprised, out of my mind. I had to thank God, really."
The sentiment is repeated over and over by his teammates. Many are boys who have played against each other, such as Corchado and Tucker, who have to put old gridiron grudges aside when they play in the All-American bowl. It isn't all that difficult, though, because most of the kids are friends. Where they go, the football follows, and when they all gather near the Freeport High School field to talk about their upcoming opportunity, they can't help but toss the ball around in the parking lot.
"At first, my parents wanted me to play," said Robinson, a running back and safety. "But I got into it when I put on the pads. I like the contact."
The hard work is a foundation for big dreams. Cange hopes football paves his way to college; Tucker wants to play against the best to prove that he's among the best. Taylor talks about maybe being in the NFL someday. He's one of the few new additions to the group, and he can't stop beaming when talking about what's coming up next.
"I couldn't wait for him to come home so I could tell him he was invited," said his mom, Ladonna Taylor. "When he's talking [right now] and you see that big smile, that was his reaction when I told him. He gave me the biggest smile ever."