Packers Share Guidance With Young Cadets At Fort McCoy

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In today's society, people see success, money and fame among NFL players, but what often is forgotten is the hard work and struggles the players had to go through along the way. Two Packers spent their off day Tuesday explaining to students the level of commitment and dedication it takes in order to achieve this kind of success in their lives.

Backup quarterback Doug Pederson and offensive guard Mike Wahle, along with head trainer Pepper Burruss shared their own life experiences with approximately 110 teenagers at the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy at Fort McCoy, Wis.

The Challenge Academy offers cadets -- mainly high school dropouts, or at risk students -- the chance to turn their lives around by developing proper work habits and the discipline to become responsible citizens.

"In general these kids are years behind in academics," Deputy Director Peter Blum said. "Many of them have a drug or alcohol abuse history, and typically come from a single-parent home. These kids come in here with significant issues and problems and if they don't turn it around quickly they are going to be in a lot of trouble."

The academy takes on habitually truant kids that will not graduate from high school and allows them to go through a program to get a High School Equivalency Degree (HSED). The Wisconsin National Guard started the Challenge Academy in 1998 and currently there are 25 other states that offer the program as well, which is operated by federal funding.

"What we do is try to teach them that there is another way besides the one they have chosen in the past," Blum said. "We call it choosing the harder 'right' over the easier 'wrong.' We're trying to get these kids to pass over the immediate gratification, which is the quick 'wrong.' Instead, we are trying to get them to look at the long-term future and make the right choices in that regard."

Assistant trainer Kurt Fielding joined Burruss, Pederson and Wahle on the trip to the Fort McCoy grounds in a Blackhawk helicopter provided by the Army National Guard. Shortly after arrival, those four ate lunch with the cadets in their mess hall.

The cadets are between 16-18 years old and must commit to improving their lives before being accepted into the program. Only then can they succeed according to Blum.

"The kids aren't here just for a quick education and then it's time to move on," Blum explained. "Rather they have to demonstrate that they are going to make the proper changes in their lives and walk out as better citizens."

Throughout the day, it was evident that the cadets had plenty of structure and discipline in their lives. Always making sure to say, "Yes sir" or "Yes ma'am," the students displayed the respect that they no doubt were taught at the Challenge Academy.

During the question and answer session, the cadets had a chance to ask the players and Burruss a wide selection of questions going beyond the ordinary football conversation. Also included in the discussion were questions regarding the players' personal lives, their goals growing up, and how they overcame long odds to be where they are.

Wahle, who spent three years in the Naval Academy, knows what it takes to live a structured life and still uses those skills today. He told the cadets that it's important for them to do the same, no matter where they end up.

"The important thing to remember is when you are here, and when you're out of here as well, to always take responsibility," Wahle told the cadets. "Ultimately, you determine what you become. When you get out of here, you won't have the regimented, disciplined schedule. If you take responsibility, and don't blame others for what happens to you, everything will work out."

Wahle, a workout warrior at 6-6, 304 pounds, said the time he has spent on becoming a better football player, as well as a better person, has been well worth it.

"I sacrificed by always wanting to put in more time than the next guy," Wahle said. "I wanted to make sure I put in time to get better. I train very hard with the atlas stones and lifting heavy logs because no one else does. It gives me the edge that I need.

"Always work as hard as you can. The hard work is worth it. The three of us are doing what we want to do and it was possible from always working our hardest."

Like Wahle, Pederson said he also battled the challenge of spending his time wisely before he made it to the NFL.

"It goes back to high school for me," Pederson said. "I wanted to spend time with my friends after school instead of playing football. I had to separate myself from a lot of the fun things I wanted to do. Hanging out with your buddies is fun, but I couldn't always do that. But now I think the hard work was very beneficial."

Besides the time factor, the players also admitted there were plenty of other obstacles to overcome.

"The hardships for me were people telling me I wasn't good enough," Pederson said. "They said I didn't have the arm or the size to become an NFL quarterback. It's the same with injuries. You have to fight through those things to reach the goals you've got."

Burruss, who has been a trainer in the NFL for 28 seasons, also offered a unique perspective on how he achieved success.

"You have to have passion," Burruss said. "Doctors, trainers, school teachers, soldiers -- they all have tremendous passion. They love what they do and it helps them be successful.

"We all have one thing in common. It's not the money in our pocket, the clothes we wear, what we want to do. None of those things are exactly the same. What is the exact same is the fact that everyone here has time. We all have the same minutes, the same seconds and so on. The seconds here are the same as they are in California, Iraq, Russia. It's what we do with that time that makes the difference in what we become."

Pederson, who made the trip despite a broken rib and a broken bone in his back stemming from Sunday's loss, said staying positive and giving full effort should be the top priorities.

"You want to put your best foot forward," Pederson explained. "Always do your best and set your goals high. When you reach one goal, set another. Encourage one another. If you see another person struggling, pick them up and help them."

Jerica Keck, a 17-year old from Lake Mills, said she will remember what these men went through if the times get tough for her.

"It was really inspirational just to hear how they had to go through a lot of difficulties, kind of like we are now," Keck said. "They overcame all obstacles in the program to make it where they wanted to be. I can relate to how they had a dream and goal to get where they wanted to be, just like all of us have the dream to do what we want to do.

"This place isn't going to make me a marine biologist, but it is another step in getting there and getting my education. It was nice to hear that everybody faces difficulties like that."

William Hansel, an 18-year old from Beloit learned that there are similarities between his fellow cadets and the Green Bay Packers.

"What I will remember is their dedication and how they all stuck to it and how they still are competing," Hansel said. "With being here, pre-challenge was the hardest phase and there were a lot of cadets that just gave up and didn't want to do it. The rest of us, the 108 that are left are still trying and still competing to get through it. Just as they didn't give up, neither are we."

The cadets, who have already completed three months of the program, will graduate from the 'Residential Phase' on December 18 and will then return to their own communities to continue an additional year-long 'Post-Residential' phase in which they are required to meet with a mentor and obtain a job or return to school.

Blum acknowledged that the Packers make a recognizable difference in the lives of the cadets at the Challenge Academy.

"Talking about what it takes to make it to the pinnacle of their profession and then to get there you still have to continue to improve and continue to work on yourself," Blum explained.

"The Challenge Academy and Green Bay Packers relationship to us has grown into just what we would have wanted it to be, which is an event that is primarily focused on the character of these players."

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