In the early afternoon of Tuesday, November 28th, six members of the Green Bay Packers were welcomed onto the military base of Fort McCoy. They arrived by helicopter and were escorted to 749 East 12th Avenue, more commonly known as the headquarters for the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy. With only 18 days and a wake-up until the 51st class of cadets graduate, they were able to enjoy a moment with the professional athletes, both sides learning valuable lessons and drawing on common backgrounds.
The Green Bay Packers who visited the Challenge Academy, and did so on their day off, were safety - Zayne Anderson (#39), kicker - Anders Carlson (#17), linebacker - Brenton Cox Jr. (#57), running back - Ellis Merriweather (#38), safety - Benny Sapp III (#48), and defensive end - Colby Wooden (#96)).
The six gifted athletes took a tour of the grounds, to include the rappel tower and seeing the cadets in action, as well as explanations of different methods of training, such as the disciplinary angle of flipping heavy tires or carrying a wooden stump around.
After the grounds tour, the half-dozen gridiron gladiators sat for a briefing, where Challenge Academy Director, Joni Mathews, provided the green and gold information about the organization, such as why the cadets are there and how the program works. “This is a volunteer program, the kids have to want come here,” Director Mathews started out. “Our motto is ‘Courage to Change.’ They cannot be court-ordered, their parents cannot force them to come, they have to want to be here.”
Director Mathews then spoke to the difficult challenge that the academy poses to the cadets, and how the cadets are faced with a drastic change from their regular lives. “You guys [Green Bay Packers] were able to walk around and see the cadets. I applaud them. They come here, to a totally foreign environment, with other kids they do not know, and on their second day here they are getting up at 5:20 in the morning. On top of that, there are no cell phones, no tv, no social media … they have to leave that all behind — that’s scary.”
As Director Mathews was finishing up, a thunderous sound of chanting cadence hit the building in rippled sound waves, causing many of the Packer’s players to stretch their necks towards the windows to witness the cadets marching by, very proud and very loud. The cadets were a mass of red shirts and booming voices as they headed toward the auditorium, for the proper public relations meet-and-greet.
Inside the Auditorium
Once inside the auditorium, the red-shirted cadets sat so quietly that the coordinates of a pin dropping to the floor could have been ascertained rather quickly. The Green Bay Packer players were introduced, one by one. Applause erupted after each player was named, along with where they had gone to college and how long they have been with the Green Bay Packer organization. They then took their seats in front of the room and answered questions put forth by the cadets.
Wooden Answers First
Colby Wooden was the first player to offer an answer as to the hardest part about inspiring younger kids. “It really is not that hard at all,” Wooden began. “A lot of you came from tough backgrounds and a lot of us can relate. My dad put me in football, and it helped me stay out of trouble. Some of the things ya’all are learning, like discipline and keeping to a schedule, I learned through football. As far as inspiring people … you all inspire me.”
Merriweather and Cox on Values, Success and Happiness
Another question posed by a cadet was what values the players live by and what the players tips were for success and happiness. Ellis Merriweather responded with, “That is a good question. Self-accountability is really important, and you all are learning that right now. I could see how happy a lot of you cadets were today, about your self-growth and I feel that is extremely important as well. Be unique, be yourself and do not let other people change your dreams, or the vision you have for what you want to do. Happiness comes from being true to who you are.”
Brenton Cox Jr. answered the same question with, “Wherever you start is not where you have to finish. As you look around, we all come from different backgrounds and different scenarios. You have to keep pushing, keep growing and you are proving your strength just by being here. Just keep that mindset and keep moving forward, and you will succeed.”
Kicker Carlson on Consistency
Anders Carlson piggybacked on Brenton Cox’s answer, by stating, “I want to talk about one word, and that is consistency ... that is what we [Packer players] see when we see you all. Colby and me both went to Auburn, and one great quote I remember, from one of our strength coaches, was, ‘The way you do one thing is the way you do everything,’ and seeing the diligent effort you all put into making your beds, you will all do very well.”
Zayne Anderson on his Job
Another question from a cadet was, “Do you all enjoy your jobs?”
Without missing a beat, Zayne Anderson replied, “Yes. I think I speak for everyone when I say that we love what we do. When we were younger, we all had a dream of doing something like this, the same as you all have dreams of doing what you want to do. Over time it seems more like a job, but there are those times when you pause for a bit and reflect on how grateful you are, as well as how far you have come. It is important to find joy in those special moments.”
There were moments that elicited laughter during the session. Colby Wooden talked about how he had a lot of energy and enjoyed being the class clown. He drew laughter from the attendees when he stated, “Through sports I was able to do what I liked, like hit people. I am kinda big, so sports was a great outlet for my high energy. I grew up watching the pros make big hits, and I always wondered, ‘Could I do that?’ and here I am. I love it.”
Benny Sapp III on Adversity
Benny Sapp III talked about overcoming adversity. “I tore my ACL twice, then I tore my meniscus once,” Sapp said in a somber voice. “So, out of my whole high school career, I only got to play two games. So, my journey consisted of me just attacking my therapy and the weight room. Every day was the same thing, and many times I did not even want to get up. When I had torn ligaments again and again, I had to go through the same processes, over and over. I kept my head down and moved forward. I stayed consistent, I moved forward, and I kept pushing myself. When I finally lifted my head, I was in the NFL.”
Cadet Mikhail Meeks
After the question-and-answer period had finished, the Green Bay Packer players stayed seated and shook every single hand of every cadet and instructor, signing their autograph when requested. Fist bumps, high-fives, smiles and laughter filled the auditorium, capturing and encapsulating the memory moment for all in attendance.
One of the cadets, Mikhail Meeks, was excited about the event and the upcoming graduation from the 22-week Challenge Academy course. When pressed by the Herald on what his journey has been like, Meeks said, “In month 1 we have our two-weeks of getting used to everything. It was getting used to the sleep schedule, and missing my family was so much. But then you get into the classes, everything starts getting faster. It was fun to do our schoolwork, and we are allotted time to read a lot. I have read 8 books while being here. In the third phase it seems like the days take forever, and you are counting them. Then we have P-Rep phase, where if you have a job interview, you can go home to that, or if you have orientation with your school, you can go to that. Basically, it is setting up your life for when you graduate, to ensure a successful transition.”
As for graduation, there is no doubt that the cadets are excited and chomping at the bit for the long-awaited moment that they have worked tirelessly at attaining the right to participate in. Meeks said that he is looking forward to Christmas and will start a new job on January 2nd. “I will also be going to college. It is between Marquette University and UW-Madison. I will be majoring in business management. My 5-year goal is to be in the military, as an officer.”
Director Joni Mathews handed out Challenge Coins out to the players, at the conclusion of the event. In front of everybody, Merriweather dropped the coin, and it clanked on the ground. “Oh no!,” said Mathews. “Cadets, what happens when you drop a coin?”
“Push-ups!” echoed through the hall.
The players all started laughing, but Merriweather laughed the hardest, as he came out and pumped out 11 push-ups, as the cadets belted out the single digit climb to 11.
It was an honor to be invited to this event, which was special for both the Green Bay Packer players and the Challenge Academy cadets. A heartfelt thank you goes out to Julee Katona – Outreach and Public Relations Coordinator for the Challenge Academy, and Director Joni Mathews. The Herald also thanks the Green Bay Packers players, who were all approachable and salt of the earth humans. A brief conversation with Brenton Cox Jr. was the perfect ending to the event.
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