Courtland Griffin has attempted to keep the lives of his McCluer North football players as normal as possible despite the upheaval in their community: Ferguson, Missouri.
North is one of three high schools in the Ferguson-Florissant School District that has yet to begin classes because of the nearly nightly protests since 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by a police officer Aug. 9. The turmoil has sent Griffin and the other football programs scrambling to find places to practice as they prepare for their upcoming season.
On Wednesday, the St. Louis Rams made it a little bit easier.
The Rams invited all three schools to use their indoor practice facility for the remainder of the week. Missouri’s high school season begins Friday.
"You need more people like this, more organizations like these guys," said Griffin, a 1999 graduate of McCluer North in his first year as the head coach. "They didn’t have to ask us to come out here. They didn’t have to reach out to us to come out here. They made it available for us. That’s awesome. That’s big.
"The strength in community, it’s a major role in what we’re doing right now. It will get us ready for our game Friday night."
McCluer High School and McCluer North both watched the Rams practice and used the team’s facility. McCluer was on hand at the start of the Rams’ workout, and the high school players shook hands with the pros. Then North took its turn.
The third high school, McCluer South-Berkeley, is expected to begin practicing at Rams Park on Thursday.
All three schools were also given 75 complimentary tickets to the Rams’ preseason game against Green Bay last Saturday, a 21-7 Packers victory.
Toward the end of the two-hour Rams practice, coach Jeff Fisher brought the North players and coaches to an end zone of one of the fields and had them simulate crowd noise.
"We had a bunch of mistakes," Fisher said, smiling. "I wouldn’t say they’re close to Seattle, but pretty close."
It was one of the many lighter moments for both the high school athletes and the Rams. After the Rams’ final drill, a rookie relay race that included a shuttle run, a bat spin and being doused by water and Gatorade by the veterans, several Rams gathered with the North players for some yelling, back slaps and jumping around.
The impromptu huddle broke up after the high school players yelled: "One, two, three: Ferguson."
"It’s kind of sad, to tell you the truth, having kids (who) can’t go to school and focus on what can help them get out of the situation they’re in, and a situation like Ferguson," St. Louis receiver Kenny Britt said. "But I think it’s a great job they’re focused on something and they’re focused on football."
Fisher said the Rams had been seeking ways to best support the community. The chance to provide a safe and quality place for them to practice was a no-brainer, he added.
He also enjoyed having the younger athletes at the final training camp practice.
"It was quite a day, as a matter of fact," Fisher said. "We finished up training camp and obviously what better way can we finish than to invite some special people to practice today? We’re fortunate that we can provide an opportunity for these young high school athletes to get away.
"Imagine, they were trying to get ready for games this week and they having to practice in a park and not be able to practice at the facility at their high schools. There’s no better game than high school football, and we didn’t want them to be denied of this opportunity, so we invited them over as our guest, and it looked like they had a lot of fun."
Griffin, who spent the past nine years at South-Berkeley, has placed an emphasis on football, hoping his players are not bothered by the numerous off-field distractions they face.
"We’re going to going to keep practicing and keep living because that’s what life is about," Griffin said. "You have to keep pressing forward. If you keep pressing forward and not let situations get you down, there will be progress.
"It’s extremely difficult to see a neighborhood that I once grew up in going through the changes it’s going through right now. I can’t say it will be the same. Hopefully it can be. Hopefully the community can rebuild and come back even stronger from this.
"Usually when things tear down, it’s a better rebuild. I’m looking forward to seeing the brightness after this darkness."