Knoxville youth take in Tech football practice

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. - About 50 kids made the two-hour bus ride from Knoxville to Tucker Stadium Tuesday afternoon. The kids -- decked out in Tennessee Tech t-shirts, jerseys, shorts and sweatpants - showed up ready to take in some Golden Eagle football action. "TTU!" chants could be heard from across the field as the kids packed into the stands on the west end of the stadium.  

But there was no football game on Tuesday. Not even a scrimmage. The kids from the South Knoxville center of the City of Knoxville After School Program were geared up to watch Tech's Tuesday afternoon practice session.

"This is not just a field trip to the kids, it's a trip to Tennessee Tech," center leader Kent Johnson said. "This is their school, it's a really big deal to the kids. They want to be a part of it, and they are all really excited to be here."

After watching the final hour of Tech's football practice, the 49 kids made their way onto the field to meet the players, take pictures, and get autographs. By now many of the students should have a large collection of Golden Eagle souvenir memorabilia. Johnson took the same group of kids to Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville when the Golden Eagle baseball team squared off against Tennessee, where Tech baseball players signed autographs and handed out posters to Johnson's group.

Johnson, a TTU alum, began his studies at Tech in the late 1980's and competed at a high level in martial arts before a knee injury.

Tennessee Tech president Dr. Bob Bell and his wife Gloria thank Johnson for paying a visit "Tech is my school, and I'm like a father figure to a lot of these kids, so it's a big deal to them too," Johnson said. "They understand the importance of excellence and academics in life."

Johnson incorporates Tennessee Tech University and Golden Eagle athletics into his after school program. The goal of the program is to provide supervised activity and community development to elementary and middle school students, and Johnson uses Tech as motivation for the kids, saying the academic award, given to the student with the highest grads, is even called the Golden Eagle award.

"Most of these kids will be first-generation college students in their families," Johnson said. "15 years from now you'll see these kids walking across that stage in the Hooper Eblen Center."