ELKHART — Come next season, James O'Shaughnessy hopes to be catching passes from Tom Brady.

But on Saturday, the third-year NFL tight end recently acquired by Super Bowl champion New England from Kansas City was at Rice Field snaring them from aspiring youth quarterbacks, and doing so with the same kind of enthusiasm one might have while hauling them in from a future Hall of Famer.

"It's funny, that's what people ask me all the time — have you caught a pass from Brady yet? — and I'm like, 'Yeah, he throws them to everybody,'" O'Shaughnessy said between sessions of a one-day youth football camp at Elkhart Central.

"Honestly, it was nerve-wracking at first, but it's just another day after awhile," O'Shaughnessy said of catching Brady's aerials at recent offseason workouts. "But it's also pretty cool, I'll give you that."

Likewise pretty cool was what was happening Saturday at Rice, and who was there giving out the pointers.

The opening two-hour session of the camp netted about a dozen kids in grades 3-5. The afternoon session for grades 6-8 drew even fewer campers, but really, all those figures meant for those who were there was an attractive coach-to-player ratio.

Besides O'Shaughnessy, Mitchell Paige, the diminutive and electric receiver out of Indiana University who has signed with the Los Angeles Chargers, was present, as was former NFL wideout Josh Lenz. The Ball State starting duo of quarterback Riley Neal and running back James Gilbert also helped during the initial session.

The camp, priced at $25, was organized and directed by Levar Johnson, an Elkhart Central graduate and former Blue Blazer assistant who now heads up football operations for InFocus Sports Training in Fishers.

"I expected more kids, but it's the first time, and as long as the kids are having a good time and learning, I'm good with it," Johnson said. "It's good to be home and to bring some of my guys up here."

It's Johnson — seemingly with as many connections as Brady has completions — who secured all that headliner help.

"I owe so much to Levar," explained Paige, who canceled a pleasure trip to Nashville, Tenn., upon being asked by Johnson to help.

Johnson was an assistant coach at Guerin Catholic High School in Noblesville when Paige was a student there.

"I was a basketball player foremost when I got there," said the 5-foot-8 Paige, who as a senior was a key reserve when coach Pete Smith's Golden Eagles won the 3A state basketball title in 2012, "but (Johnson) got me to play football, too, and obviously, it opened up a new world for me."

A fully attentive Paige shared some extra advice with one camper and his grandmother over several minutes when approached after the first session of Saturday's camp. O'Shaughnessy seemed eagerly engaged as well. He and Paige exchanged playful trash talk while playing on opposite sides in a tag scrimmage to cap that first session.

"I owe Levar a lot for all the preparation and training he's done with me, and I just want to give back to him and a community that I'm told loves football," said O'Shaughnessy, who first came to know Johnson when the latter was training O'Shaughnessy's Illinois State teammate, quarterback Tre Roberson.

"Just to share the game I love with younger people is part of our job, and something I enjoy," O'Shaughnessy said.

Love of the game is something that breathes strong for O'Shaughnessy, for Paige and for Johnson, despite the admittedly inherent dangers of football that are increasingly grabbing media notice.

Each was asked about the growth in youth flag football that New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is promoting, and about what age they would suggest for players to start playing tackle football.

"My son's played (tackle) football in the Elkhart Youth League as a third grader, and I've coached it with Dave Schnell," Johnson said, referring to the late Elkhart great who starred at IU, "but it's really up to the parents, and I didn't play tackle until seventh grade.

"What I would definitely recommend is knowing who the coaches are," Johnson continued, "making sure they're knowledgable about the heads-up (tackling technique) that they're preaching now. It is a violent sport, but I also think it gets a bad rap with the concussion thing, because women's soccer has the most concussions (per participant), that and lacrosse, but football is so big and the NFL is so big, it draws attention."

"It's a tough question for a lot of parents," said O'Shaughnessy, who started playing tackle football around fourth grade. "I'm not a parent, so I don't want to speak for anybody, but I'd say whatever you feel comfortable with, and whether your kid is physically ready.

"There are great alternatives," O'Shaughnessy added, "like 7-on-7 and flag, and you don't necessarily need tackling to still be getting the benefit of team work and learning football skills."

O'Shaughnessy and Paige both say they've stayed relatively healthy in football, but they acknowledge the risks.

"I suggest you diversify (sports)," said Paige, who recalls playing tackle football in second grade. "I think every skill you learn in every sport can help you with quickness and strength and staying healthy. I've also worked a lot on how to get hit and what to try to avoid. I know there are risks, but I don't really worry too much about it."

Paige says that in lower grades the risk of injury is reduced "by the lack of speed and power" behind the hits, "but I also understand people's concerns."

"I've been fortunate, knock on wood," O'Shaughnessy said. "It's something you accept as a football player, that you know you're going to have some sort of injury, but to me, the joy of the game outweighs the danger, and without football, there are so many things in my life I wouldn't have."

(1) comment

strtdude

Not to mention young kids turning their shoulders into mush for the rest of their lives for the sake of pitching baseball that will give them nothing but bragging rights. Don't worry about them catchers knees either. I was a danged natural at sports and now thank my lucky stars I said to heck with academics which led to saying the heck with sports, therefore no physical destruction. And also, who needed sports when being a born natural with the ladies. Many of these school athletes are and would do well to leave bodily destructive sports out it. After all, life is all about the pursuit of the cuties. Any deniers?

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