BALTIMORE (AP) -Growing up, Jared Gaither was talented enough with a basketball to entertain legitimate hopes of earning a college scholarship and playing in the NBA.
Gaither had just finished seventh grade when he began scouting Maryland high schools. During a visit to DeMatha, home of one of the nation's most successful basketball programs, Gaither ran into the school's football coach.
``We started talking, and he said he had a camp coming up. I said, 'I'm an athlete. I like sports. I'll give it a try.' And I went out there,'' Gaither recalled.
It turned out to be a life-changing experience. Gaither embraced football, went on to accept a full scholarship from Maryland and is earning a sizable salary as a first-year offensive tackle with the Baltimore Ravens.
The football camp he attended, free of charge, was the NFL-sponsored Junior Player Development program. Because of the dearth of middle-school football teams around the country, JPD teaches 12-to-14-year-olds the game's fundamentals, as well as life lessons.
``I give the NFL a lot of credit,'' said former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason, who joined the program as an instructor at its inception in 1998. ``A lot of these kids come from broken homes or bad neighborhoods. It gives them the opportunity to do something constructive, something fun. I've seen the program work.''
Anthony Perkins was growing up in the nation's capital when he decided to join the local JPD program. He ended up going to DeMatha and played well enough to earn a scholarship to Syracuse, where the 6-foot-5, 275-pound defensive end recently completed his first season.
``My middle school didn't offer football and I was too big to play Boy's Club ball,'' Perkins said. ``It was the springtime, I was twiddling my thumbs with nothing to do, so I decided to give it a try. I would say that if it weren't for that, I wouldn't be in the position I am now.''
While at DeMatha, Perkins participated in the NFL's High School Player Development program, an advanced version of JPD that provides teenagers the opportunity to showcase their skills before college coaches and scouts.
The emphasis in both programs is football and fun, but participants are required to bring their report cards so they can receive counseling on NCAA eligibility. At the end of each session, the coaches gather the kids to share character-building instruction on subjects such as time management and self-respect.
``It's like being prepared for a test,'' Perkins said. ``HSPD taught me what to expect as a college football player, and it prepared me for life. It taught me the importance of the SATs, keeping my grades up, doing the right thing - even how to dress when going to class.''
The JPD program doesn't make big kids like Gaither and Perkins spend all their time mired on the line. Because everyone gets a shot at playing every position, Gaither discovered he was a pretty good quarterback and Perkins learned that being a running back was a whole lot of fun.
``A lot of football camps around the country cost $500, and we provide a lot more for free,'' said Bill McGregor, the DeMatha coach who got Gaither hooked on football.
``As a football coach, you want to give back to the community. That's what we're doing,'' McGregor said. ``I can't tell you how many kids have gone through the program and went on to play high school and college football. I'm proud to be part of it.''
This year, the 160 JPD sites attracted 21,175 kids and the 50 HSPD programs lured 10,045 teenagers, according to Jerry Horowitz, NFL Director of JPD/HSPD. The cost to the league is millions of dollars, with no guaranteed return on the investment.
Then again, this isn't a moneymaking proposition.
``You're just trying to reach kids who maybe can't afford a football,'' Esiason said. ``From a community standpoint, you're filling a void in their life.''
In a survey of HSPD participants in 2007, 97 percent said they planned to go to college.
Gaither and Cleveland Browns linebacker Leon Williams, a graduate of the HSPD program, are proof that the JPD/HSPD can ultimately provide the league with talent. The NFL hopes the programs will also expand the league's popularity.
``We know if we can engage kids and parents with the beauty of tackle football, then at the end of the day we can capture a lot of our customer fan base,'' said Ray Anderson, the league's executive vice president of football operations. ``It's good business as well as good community service.''

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