Pro Football Hall of Famer Anthony Muñoz (M) poses with students and a volunteer at the Strong Youth, Strong Communities (SYSC) youth summit at Los Angeles Trade Technical College. (Lauren Jones/L.A. Sentinel)

NFL Hall of Famers Darrell Green, Aeneas Williams and Anthony Muñoz  teamed up with the Centene Corporation, the official youth wellness partner of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to host Strong Youth, Strong Communities (SYSC) youth summits in Sacramento and California.

“Our youth are a third of our population, but yet 100 percent of our future,” remarked Williams. “Eventually, they are going to be the ones running our country.”

It is for this reason that the Hall of Famers have committed their time to giving back. Over a three-day period, they traveled to the Sacramento Convention Center, California State University, Northridge (CSUN) and Los Angeles Trade Technical College (LATTC) to inspire hundreds of students to lead a productive life.

“This is a continuation of what I’ve been doing my whole adult life … trying to figure out a way to impact the next generation from a moral, academic, social development aspect,” said Green, founder of SYSC.

Hundreds of children participated in an interactive presentation by the Hall of Famers where they heard the real-life experiences that led to the former players’ successes on and off the field. Each gold jacket wearing former football player detailed the ways in which their life paralleled the lives of many of the students.

“We can be vulnerable, we can be transparent in sharing our stories,” said Muñoz who spent 13 seasons playing with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Pro Football Hall of Famer Darrell Green (L) poses with a student at the Strong Youth, Strong Communities (SYSC) youth summit at Los Angeles Trade Technical College.

The free summit was for students ages 13-18, who also participated in breakout sessions that equipped them with life skills and leadership development tools. The students discussed the daily challenges they face in small groups of their peers. Muñoz expressed the mutual reward in hearing students’ stories including one young woman who divulged her strained relationship with her mother. After she shared, she came to the conclusion that she needed to make amends.

“That’s the ‘a-ha moment,’ the revelation moment,” said Muñoz. “For her to get up there and to have her friends sitting in the audience as part of the group, I think it takes a lot of courage and transparency.”

Those breakout groups provide a safe place for students. The same type of safe space Williams had in Harrell Park when he was growing up in New Orleans.

“That park was a safe haven; my parents, my two older brothers, we all spent so much time at the park,” remembered Williams. It was the same park that current NFL players like Odell Beckham Jr. and Leonard Fournette played. “Now, those venues are pretty much gone, so having these summits is important because there are not a lot of safe havens for young people.”

(L-R) Pro Football Hall of Famers Anthony Muñoz, Aeneas Williams and Darrell Green address students at the Strong Youth, Strong Communities (SYSC) youth summit at California State University, Northridge. (Photo by Health Net)

“There are many of us who have had those life experiences,” said Carol Kim, vice president of Community Investments and Public Affairs for Health Net, a Centene owned company that provides Medicaid to over 12 million people. Kim grew up in South Los Angeles, a product of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

It is events like these that determine “how we can bridge together the needs of the community  and our youth in terms of their health status, their behavioral and physical health because only through that can we start transforming the lives of our community, one person at a time.”

In many ways she could identify with the students in attendance like Chris Avila, a tenth grader  at Paramount High School. Avila is a participant in an after school program that focuses on leadership development activities to motivate students in high school to attend college. He was among students from various local organizations including Challengers Boys and Girls Club.

“I find it important because a lot of kids here, most of them growing up in need, social and emotional needs,” said Avila who has been in the foster care system for nearly three years. His father was never around and his mother did not have the financial means to take care of he and his siblings.

“Even though I’ve been in the system and through tough situations, this summit taught me that no matter what you are able to succeed,” Avila said proudly.

It is precisely this thinking that the Centene Corporation and the Pro Football Hall of Fame seeks to instill in youth across the country by hosting these summits.

“A lot of these kids get facts and information,” stated Williams. “Information gets in their head but a story changes a life; when we share our stories that show we are no different from them, that’s when it becomes a game-changer because we aren’t talking down to them, we’re talking on the same level as them.”