By Mark Eckel, Player Engagement Insider
They had Blake Martinez at “helicopter.’’ The Green Bay Packers linebacker got much more than a cool trip across Wisconsin, however.
Martinez, the Packers’ rookie from Stanford, along with his teammates — quarterback Brett Hundley and defensive back Micah Hyde — visited the Wisconsin Challenge Academy in mid-December.
The Challenge Academy is a five-month program for teenagers who have either dropped out of school, or were asked to leave for various reasons. Run by the U.S. Army, it is a voluntary program designed to help with life skill development.
“They came to me said you want to come talk to kids, fly in a helicopter. Once I heard helicopter I was in,’’ Martinez said with a laugh. “I didn’t really know much about [the Academy] going in, didn’t know what to expect.’’
What Martinez and the other Packers found was an experience that they say helped them as much as it did the students. This wasn’t a bunch of delinquents who have been put away; it was just the opposite.
“Once I got there and met the kids it changed everything,’’ Martinez said. “One girl had like three high school credits to her name and she was19. After I talked to her I thought she was the valedictorian of her school. It was a crazy experience. I learned more from them and about myself then they learned from me that day.’’
The Packers players arrived on a Tuesday morning, the team’s day off, went through a normal routine with the students, saw what they did and learned, and had an informal chat with the100-plus kids.
“It was really interesting,’’ Hundley, the second-year quarterback from UCLA, said. “For five months they have minimal contact with the outside world, no phone, except for once a week for like 20 minutes. Everything is scheduled, there’s order to everything.
“I’ve never heard of anything like this. But it was an awesome program. It was legit. I loved it, absolutely loved it. I want to go back. I told some of them I’ll come back and do their jog with them, a five-mile jog, well, maybe not the whole five miles.’’
Hundley laughed, but was serious about going back again.
“It was a great opportunity for us to use our platform,’’ he said. “Any average Joe doesn’t get their attention the same way. They might not listen. They look up to guys like us. They want to be like us, be a NFL player. So, they seem to listen more.’’
Martinez listened to the students and wished he knew about the Challenge Academy sooner.
“I was telling the people that worked there, if I had known about this before I could have helped some past friends,’’ he said. “I wish there were more programs around the country, or around the world, like this. It really does a lot of good.’’
The players talked to the kids and seemed to ask as many question of them, as they did the players. Both seemed to learn.
“I asked some of the kids how they got here,’’ Martinez said. “They said they hung out with wrong group, or just didn’t care. Once they got in their group, the first two weeks are tough, because they all came from the same kind of backgrounds. But they learn from their mentors. Once they grasp the concept, every one of those kids are like best friends.’’
This is Martinez’s rookie season, so he’s had a lot to learn on the field in the Packers’ 3-4 defense. He’s learning about the NFL off the field as well, and using his time there just as well.
“The one main thing I wanted to dive into, once I got a platform like this, once I got my feet underneath me, I wanted to get involved,’’ he said “Whatever I can do, I want to give back. When I was a kid, I hope I wasn’t a bad kid, but whenever a college player or a NFL player spoke to us, I took it to heart. I hope I can do the same thing.’’