Elston sees more sides to football at summit
Mark Elston's trip to Canton, Ohio, last week was more than a short trip by plane.
The jaunt actually seemed like time travel for the Tonganoxie High football coach.
When Elston arrived at his destination, he eventually entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a venue that took Elston back to his youth with some of the memories of former football greats and legendary games on display.
"For a football coach, you couldn't ask for anything more to see everything you've read and heard about it," Elston said. "It was really, really impressive."
Elston's trip to Canton got off the ground thanks to Darren Neas. The Tonganoxie Junior High assistant principal nominated Elston to represent Kansas in the National Football League's Youth Football Summit.
Elston then had to submit a 100-word essay to the NFL, which later selected the THS coach as the Sunflower State's representative. A coach from each state and the District of Columbia was selected for the summit, along with 25 youth football coaches.
After speaking with coaches from around the country, Elston said it was amazing to see how Kansas stacked up to other states.
"We here in Kansas are as antiquated as we can be," Elston said. "We are miles behind other states. It's absolutely scary how far we are behind other states."
For instance, Elston said Kansas is one of only about 10 states to not have some sort of spring football program.
The coach also saw the flip side, however.
"But we also have the same exact problems and difficulties as a school in Idaho," Elston said. "And we've got, Tonganoxie in particular, we have some things a lot better off than a lot of people have.
"It was very unique to hear other guys talk about their problems and what works for them and what takes place in their area."
An inner city school in New York has 8,000 students, but very few were out for football, Elston said. And a coach from a Tampa school in Florida said his school was a Class 3A program out of six classes with an enrollment of 2,300. In Kansas, Derby High is the largest school with about 1,500 students in sophomore through senior classes. That Tampa school had 18,000 people attend its spring football game earlier this year.
Coaches from across the world, from Tokyo to France and Austria, also attended the summit, giving Elston an even bigger picture of the sport he coaches.
"It was very uplifting as far as a coach is concerned," Elston said. "It was one of the best things I've ever been to.
"This wasn't all strategy and X's and O's. It was dealing with a lot of other issues -- grades, keeping kids out and community involvement."
The NFL also is making a push for women coaches at the youth level.
Elston learned at the summit that the NFL has earmarked $150 million for youth football with an emphasis on education. The league has academic coaches it will send to high schools where players need help in getting their grades up. Those coaches usually are sent to inner-city schools, Elston said. The NFL also is promoting a statistic that shows the past five Super Bowl champions had the highest college graduation rate of any team.
"They showed how important academics are and how they correlate with success on the field," Elston said.
The summit covered several topics along with education. The conference certainly kept coaches busy.
Activities started each day about 7 a.m. and didn't finish until midnight each day.
"They kept us busy," Elston said. "It was tremendously enjoyable, but you were busy."
After all, Elston saw plenty of football greats.
Gayle Sayers, Art Shell, Bobby Mitchell, Lynn Swann, Paul Warfield, Gene Washington and several other players were at the summit, while NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was a speaker at one of the group's dinners.
The fourth annual summit coincided with the hall of fame's induction weekend. John Elway, Barry Sanders, Bob Brown and Carl Eller formed this year's class of hall-of-famers.
Friday evening, the coaches at the youth summit were given a private viewing of the Hall of Fame. But their arrival provided the "most hysterical" part of the trip, according to Elston.
As visitors to the hall were being escorted out, coach liner buses carrying Elston and the other coaches rolled up to museum.
"We looked fairly official," Elston said.
Visitors were ready for autographs and pictures, but former greats such as Sanders and Elway were not on the bus.
"I was the first one off the bus," Elston said. "A lot of people were disappointed to see me come off that bus."