Kids, athletes benefit from an afternoon at Wesley
Andre Lott plays touch football with students at the Wesley Center on Monday. Lott, who is Tennessee's coordinator of the Vol for Life program for character development, visited the Wesley Center's summer program with selected sophomores.
Andre Lott got a glimpse of an outgoing personality he didn't know existed.
He heard the story of another player overcoming poverty to earn a scholarship at Tennessee.
The coordinator of the new Vol for Life program for character development also saw a class of sophomores bond instantly with a group of inner-city kids, following up speeches about the value of education with an afternoon full of games together on a humid Monday afternoon.
The Vols might not be able to change the culture or preception of their program overnight, and Lott certainly won't be able to get to know the entire roster he'll be working with in that timeframe either. But in his first community service event since coming back to UT this month - and the first of several scheduled this week - Lott was able to make significant progress with the latter as the Vols opened up at the Wesley House Community Center.
He also saw that the former might not be as bad as advertised.
"It's going to take some time," Lott said before heading to the playgound himself. "I'm currently in the process of sitting down with each player on a personal level to let them know what I've done. I want them to tell me about them, what their expectations are of me. More than anything, I'm here for them.
"It's been great so far. I think the best thing we really have going right now is me getting to know the players before we really start implementing anything in the fall, and that's been going great. It's easy for me to get to know these guys when they're coming down and speaking to the kids - you really get to see their real personality. With (linebacker) Robert (Nelson), I would never have thought he had the personality that he has, it's awesome. It's going to be great, and we're really looking forward to this."
The day of service certainly started building some excitement for the Vol for Life program, though in some ways it's just the tip of the iceberg in the long-term plan for the brainchild of new coach Derek Dooley.
Community service is just one part of a multi-faceted approach to preparing the Vols for life after UT, along with life skills, career development, spirituality and character education - all of which Lott will be responsible for organizing and overseeing for Dooley.
The former Louisiana Tech coach had a bare-bones version of the program at his last stop, but it will be expanded considerably thanks to UT's resources and the hiring of Lott. Neither the program nor the community service events this week were scheduled as a response to the latest embarrassing arrests at Bar Knoxville, but in their wake the potential value of Vol for Life in helping shape the players has only become more clear.
"It's essentially surrounding our players with all the resources that are going to empower them to reach their capacity in three areas - school, football and personal growth," Dooley said. "They're all very distinct fields. But those three things are, to me, what college is all about.
"Most people focus on making you a great player and making sure you graduate, but the third component is the most important to me. If you get out of school and can't do the basics, that's a problem. No matter who you are, you've got to turn pro as a man."
Like repairing UT's image or Lott getting to know the roster, that process will take some time as well. But UT is committed to a comprehensive program, breaking the team up by class for different lessons throughout their career and keeping them together for bonding events like the one for the sophomores on Monday.
For now, that's merely a starting point for the Vols and Lott. But class will soon be in session, and the man in charge is getting a jump on roll call already.
"This isn't really overwhelming for me because I've been doing it for the last three years," Lott said. "I know what to expect, and Coach Dooley knows what he expects of me, so that's why it's been an easy transition for me. It was a little overwhelming with actually seeing 100 players or 90 players, but I think that was the only thing that was a little overwhelming.
"But you know, I really will take this and evaluate them. You know, like how you dress, how you speak out, things like that. There's something they can learn from in every situation."
In the process, the players are helping Lott learn a thing or two about them as well.