The football field at Sugarloaf School on Monday resembled a Miami Dolphins training camp - with one important difference: The would-be players being challenged with offensive and defensive drills featuring hurdles, knock-away dummies, ladders and halfback pads, were youngsters taking part in the Gatorade Junior Training Camp, which is making its first-ever foray into the Florida Keys this week. The kids also got to drink plenty of Gatorade, which was available in unlimited quantities in coolers located strategically around the field.
"We're out here to stress education, physical fitness and making the right choices in life," said retired Dolphins tight end Troy Drayton, who was on hand to coordinate the program at Sugarloaf, along with two other staffers from the Dolphins organization. "We try to encourage the kids to 'Play 60,' or exercise for at least 60 minutes per day, and we want them to prioritize education. We also stress that making the right choices in life includes staying away from drugs, and eating right. You can't play football, or any other sport if you don't eat right. We're hoping to send a positive message to the kids."
Third-grade Sugarloaf student Emma Scanlon, 9, was thrilled to be taking part in the program.
"It's a party, and athletic, and you get to run around a lot," Scanlon said, adding that she "really liked station No. 6," where she got to practice her hopscotch skills.
Sugarloaf School Physical Education Instructor Pete Tirado appeared as excited as his students, as he and a dozen other parental volunteers and teachers took their places on the field at the training equipment stations the students were rotating around. In total about 500 boys and girls took part in the Sugarloaf program, with the K-5 students going first, and the sixth- through eighth-graders marching onto the gridiron afterwards.
"It's just great," Tirado said, as his students hammered away at the halfback pads he was holding. "The kids are having a blast. This is the first time they've ever visited Monroe County, and I've been trying for three years to get them here."
Tirado called the event a "true community effort," with area businesses contributing hotel rooms, a guided fishing excursion for the Dolphins "team" and more.
Now that they've experienced the Keys hospitality for themselves, Tirado is hopeful that their visits to county schools will become a regular occurrence.
"They have another program called Fins Friday, which I'm hoping to get into some of the schools down here," Tirado said.
The physical education teacher said the "Fins" organization has been helpful to the school in other ways as well.
"They gave us a deal on a number of $35 tickets to the games, which is as cheap as you're ever going to get them, and let us keep $10 of each ticket sold," Tirado said. "The students helped to sell them, and the deal was, if they sold 30 tickets, they got take part in the pre-game show on the field. If they sold 50 tickets, the Dolphins would treat them to a pizza party. The team has a number of programs for young people that are fun and popular."
Tirado, who was also instrumental in getting the Junior Training Camp to visit Poinciana Elementary on Wednesday, may just have his wish of seeing more Dolphins youth programs visit the area, come true.
"I love it down here," Drayton said. "It's great. I'd been to Key West before, but this is the first time I've spent time in the rest of the Keys. We're in schools three days per week in Broward, Miami/Dade, Collier, and Palm Beach counties. We're not just a football team. We're part of the community."