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June 26, 2013
When Robert Gregory was a kid growing up in the Chicago area, he'd attend camps hosted by the Chicago Bears.
He won't forget how he and hundreds of other kids swarmed to the players, in awe of their presence, and how eager they all were to catch a pass, make a tackle or finish a race with one of them watching.
Gregory got a different perspective on Wednesday as Purdue's football team hosted an instructional camp as part of the PALS program.
More than 100 kids, ages 8-14, invaded the Bimel Practice Complex and divided into six stations headed by Boilermakers. They caught passes, raced through an obstacle course that included blocking pads and hurdles, tackled dummies and were put through agility drills, among other things, during the morning session.
"I liked it. It was pretty cool because I got to see real football players," said 9-year-old Haylie Taits, who had Gregory's autograph on her forearm.
Gregory, and the rest of dozen-or-so Purdue players who were able to attend the morning session, signed as many autographs as they could, including on the back of T-shirts, slips of paper and, yes, body parts.
Jonathan Curry said he didn't want to sign an arm, saying it wasn't "safe," but did anyway. So did his teammates. And they were happy to do it.
It reminded Gregory of how he was as a kid with the Bears' players.
"Kids look up to us, so that's a great feeling," Gregory said. "I felt like a celebrity to these kids."
The Purdue Athletes Life Success program is in its 12th year serving low-income children in Tippecanoe County, and its day with Boilermaker players is usually one of the most anticipated of the nearly month-long program.
And not just for the kids.
"It's fun," said tight end Justin Sinz. "Whenever you can help out kids in the area, especially I think the issue with some of these kids is maybe they don't have as much fun in other places, so to bring them out here and take them through some drills and interact with them is pretty fun. To see them get excited about catching a touchdown or kicking a field goal, that's what makes it worth it for us to come out here with them.
"I like hanging out with kids this age because they're always excited. You can never have too much energy, especially when you're out on a football field. So that's kind of nice for these kids, too, because maybe some of them have a lot of energy and they can use it out here and not be reprimanded for having a lot of energy and running around and having fun. So that's good for them and fun for us."
Sinz was able to show off some of his quarterback skills - though he's a tight end for Purdue, he played QB in high school - and said he was impressed by some of the kids' "big snares" and TDs.
And, as usually happens at these events, a player was able to foster interest in the sport for a kid who previously didn't have one.
"This one little girl, she wasn't too excited about it," Sinz said, "and after she had two or three catches in a row, I think she really liked it because when the station was over, she didn't want to leave."
Austin Appleby sailed passes deep into the end zone for kids to grab, too, and often whipped his hands in the air to signal touchdown when a catch was made.
Sean Robinson oversaw the obstacle course and often had a high five ready for the kids who ran back to the end of the line after completing a turn.
Gregory and Curry impressed kids with their shifty moves, running around and quickly changing directions to avoid would-be tacklers.
At Gregory's agility station in which kids ran the 5-10-5 shuttle, some recruited him to line up opposite them. He obliged, but they quickly suspected something.
"You're not going your hardest!" one kid piped up.
Gregory just smiled - and continued to let the kids win. But he was happy to see their spirit.
"It was actually fun for me to watch because these kids are actually competing with each other," Gregory said. "That's something that our new staff teaches here is compete in everything we do. Every rep we compete with the person next to us. So every station was set up so where you could compete with someone next to you."
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