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Dexter McNabb took it all in as about 200 fifth- through eighth-graders ran across the fields at Menomonie Middle School on Sunday.

The former Green Bay Packer was on hand to speak to the kids participating in the 26th annual Western Wisconsin Youth Football Camp.

McNabb, who played at the University of Florida before being selected by the Packers in the fifth round of the 1992 NFL Draft, knows what it takes to be successful. But he stressed that not everyone can make it that far, and youth camps need to focus on teaching lessons and getting kids interested in the game.

“My message to these kids that are here: embrace it, enjoy it and remember it’s just a sport,” the former fullback said. “These kids right here, first of all, they have drunk the Kool-Aid. You’ve got 200 kids here who could be at home, watching TV and playing Pokemon Go. ... They are here wanting to learn the game of football.”

Menomonie football coach Joe LaBuda, who organizes the three-day camp, says that it’s all about getting kids active and interested.

“What we’re trying to do is get kids to catch a fire about the game,” LaBuda said.

No matter how good kids are or how long they play, McNabb says that everyone can take something away from the game.

“Football is a team sport, it teaches you life skills, it teaches compassion, it teaches you how to get people of all different ethnic backgrounds to come together and accomplish a common goal,” McNabb said. “That’s what life’s about ... trials and tribulations, you get knocked down, you get back up.”

An early connection

McNabb and LaBuda first met in 1988 at the Florida-Georgia High School All-Star Game. LaBuda was coaching in Gainesville, Fla. at the time, while McNabb was a senior who was about to head off to play for the Gators. That shared experience led them to keep in touch over the years.

“Good people remember good people, that was my first impression of him and that was his first impression of me,” McNabb said. “Now I’m trying to give back to kids.”

That attitude is exactly what LaBuda looks for when picking a guest speaker for the camp.

“A big thing we try to do is bring in a speaker that’s a character guy,” LaBuda said.

Keeping options open

Education is an important topic for the 47-year-old McNabb, who lives in De Pere and is an assistant principal at Green Bay West High School.

“You have to be educated if you’re going to do anything,” McNabb said. “And if you’re educated and you’re an athlete, you’re going to have options. If you have options, you’re going to be able to do what you want to do.”

McNabb left himself with options, which he called upon after his NFL career ended in 1995. He was primarily a blocking fullback for the Packers in 1992 and 1993, then was out of the NFL for a year before finishing his career with the Philadelphia Eagles.

“When I walked away from the game, I had options because I had a degree. I knew I was going to be able to do something,” McNabb said. “These kids have to put themselves in a situation to have options, and to do that you have to be educated.”

Similarly, McNabb believes kids should keep their athletic options open as long as possible.

“I don’t believe kids should specialize in just one sport,” McNabb said. “I think if you get different avenues and different techniques from different coaches, that will make you a total athlete.”

Improving the game

McNabb also discussed how much safety has improved since concussions became a hot topic in the NFL.

“This game is safer than it ever was,” McNabb said. “What’s going on now in football, they are putting time and money in it to make sure every kid is safer. ... I love football ... I bleed football ... But I believe in making sure that kids are safe playing football too.”

LaBuda echoed McNabb’s sentiments.

“The helmets are so much different than what kids wore just 10 years ago,” said Labuda, who runs the camp with zero pads or helmets. “And coaches are smarter about what they’re doing.”

McNabb said it starts at a young age, noting that he never had problems letting his high school son, Matthew, play the sport.

“A lot of it goes into who is coaching your kids,” McNabb said. “We have to make sure we’re training fathers and other coaches that make sure these kids are getting the right techniques.”

A homegrown camp

Plenty of qualified coaches were on hand at the Western Wisconsin Youth Football Camp, which ran from Sunday until Tuesday. McNabb assisted kids with running back drills, while about 25 high school coaches were on hand to help run the camp.

“A big part is the amount of coaches we have that volunteer to do this, and then getting high school players to help out,” LaBuda said of what makes the camp successful. “The coaches from the area and the guys that volunteer, that’s what makes it go.”

The participation of people from across western Wisconsin has helped create a community-like atmosphere.

“The cool thing about this camp is I’ll run into guys that are 30 years old now and they’ll say ‘hey I was in that camp’,” LaBuda said. “That’s kind of neat.”

Football is thriving in the area, as the Big Rivers Conference saw unprecedented success in 2015. It may have been the best conference in the state, with Menomonie, Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire Memorial each reaching the state quarterfinals. Talent continues to cycle through Menomonie, with 2016 graduates Nate Stanley and Mason Stokke headed to play Division I football at Iowa and Wisconsin, respectively.

Current Menomonie varsity athletes also stay involved, volunteering at the camp they once attended.

“It’s just as good for them as it is for the kids,” said LaBuda, who is entering his 28th year as Menomonie’s head coach. “They learn about giving back and doing community service.”

The kids heard from one of those former campers Monday when current University of Wisconsin-La Crosse head coach Mike Schmidt, a 2003 Menomonie graduate, was the guest speaker.

It’s this connection and enthusiasm for the sport that has kept the Western Wisconsin Youth Football Camp, and Menomonie football, successful year after year.

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