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The football fields at Dillon Park saw something on Thursday morning that has been missing for a long time: smiles on the faces of football players from Sumter, Crestwood and Lakewood high schools.
Those smiles were mostly obscured by masks, but they were there as more than 40 athletes from Sumter School District came together to work out. The message of the workout was simple. The players wanted to prove to the school district that they can safely in spite of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sumter School District has yet to allow student-athletes in fall sports participate in any weightlifting and conditioning workouts approved by the South Carolina High School League in early June.
"We just want to bring awareness that we can start conditioning, we know how to do this the right way," said Sumter wide receiver Marcus Lane, one of the event organizers.
Thursday's workout at Dillon Park wasn't just a group of athletes getting together. They were organized. If you walked up to the football field, your temperature was checked. There were cleaning supplies, individual water bottles and Gatorade and everyone was masked. And they weren't just masked on the sidelines. Most of the athletes had face coverings as they ran sprints and participated in drills to show they were willing to do what was necessary to get back on the field. Lane said that organization was crucial to their message.
"My mom said to do everything the right way, so when they come, they won't have anything bad or negative to say," said Lane.
Unity was also a crucial factor. Students from all three Sumter School District High schools wanted to put any rivalries aside to show how important football is to them. Lane worked with Lakewood's Jayleal Fuller and Crestwood's Derrick Prince to organize the event and spread the word because they knew how important it was to have representation from all three schools.
"Each school has their own voice. Crestwood, Sumter High, Lakewood, they all touch everybody around them in the Sumter community. Everyone has one voice," said Fuller. "With us coming together as one, this is not just Sumter High, Crestwood and Lakewood. This is Sumter County. It helps our case to the Sumter School District to show that we really want to work."
All three schools were well represented, and some of the biggest names from all three programs were in attendance. Likely the most well-known face in the crowd was Justus Boone, the Florida defensive end commitment. from Sumter High. Boone hopes that lending his name to this cause helps grab the attention of the school district.
"I'm a humble guy, I don't like to put myself on top of nobody or anything like that, but I do feel like people know me and it can bring a little more attention, but I don't think it's bringing more than everyone coming together," said Boone. "(This workout) means a lot to me, it touches me deeply, it touches my people. All season, we're going against each other, so it's good that we're able to come together for this cause so we can keep playing each other."
While the athletes organized the event, it couldn't have worked without the parents that came out to help. Sonya Smith, whose son, Amarion, plays at Lakewood, was one of the moms that came out to help check temperatures and hand out drinks. She stands by the message of these kids and wanted to do whatever she could to help.
"I think it takes away their (desire to) strive. It takes away their pride and want to be a part of something," Smith said on the negatives that come from workouts not being allowed. "If you take it from them, they're distracted, they've lost hope or you've taken kind of hope they had and shattered it. I say, let them play, let them live, let them have fun and let them learn. They learn from each other and we learn from them."
Derrick Russell, another Lakewood parent, was out on the field helping coach the workouts. He was so proud of the kids for organizing the event and wanted to lend whatever aid he could.
"I think these kids have done a great thing by standing up and doing what they need to do to get out on the field," said Russell. "I love it. The city has come together and the parents have come together.
At the end of the day, football matters to these kids. To many athletes around Sumter, football is more than just a game. It brings this community together and gives Sumter athletes positive goals. That's why they want to play."
"This is very big and very important. This is more than just football for these guys, this is life," said Prince. "This teaches kids brotherhood, unity, how to stand up for each other. It teaches more than just throwing and catching the ball and hitting somebody."
Fuller echoed that sentiment.
"Some of these boys come from hard times. Life isn't easy, but football helps with all of this," said Fuller. "Football releases some of our challenging moments. Football is a place where we can come when we feel uncomfortable. You take football away from these guys, and you're not going to see the same person. Football has made some of these guys the guys they are today.
"My message to the district is to let us play. We don't have to have fans, but we really want to play, and I hope that them seeing this shows that these boys are serious."
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