By E. Mesiyah McGinnis LA Sentinel Staff Writer
Jaydon Mickens of the Jacksonville Jaguars returned to his inner-city L.A. roots, along with Keith Belton of SEA and sports agent Nicole Lynn of Young Money APAA Sports, to present “Out The Mud” (OTM), a free youth football camp /mentorship effort for kids (ages 8-14) at Rancho Cienega Sports Complex’s Jackie Robinson Stadium (aka Dorsey High), in South L.A. on Saturday, July 7.
Mickens follows other Dorsey Don legends and past NFL WR greats in Keyshawn Johnson, Butch Johnson, Dennis Northcutt, Antonio Chapman, Aaron Cox and a stellar list of ex Don receivers who made an impact in the NFL. There’s a kind of swag inherited within the Dorsey football fraternity; they share and understand the mercurial culture of inner-city L.A., and what it takes to thrive from within.
Though shunned by NFL scouts, Mickens would not be denied. He trained, prayed, and remained steadfast in his faith. “Out The Mud is where I came from to make it in the NFL, and I want the kids to see me and know my story,” said Mickens, who relentlessly reminded the youth of their boundless potential, but didn’t back away from reprimanding the trash talkers who couldn’t produce. “See … you doin’ all that talking but he’s beating you. Don’t talk about it … be about it!”
The youth football camp attracted nearly 100 young football enthusiasts who welcomed the rare opportunity to meet a hometown hero, workout with him and be mentored by the kind of professional athlete often deemed inaccessible. “I came back here for you guys; to let you know I am no different than you are. I may be at another level now but I was just like you. It’s possible … it’s possible.”
Mickens (age 24), a Dorsey High and Baldwin Hills Pop Warner alumnus, played on the very field that he returned to hold his first camp. He not only showed up in 100-degree weather, he brought a group of coaches and trainers from SEA to help educate and instill values in the kids through rotating group sessions and one-on-on competition.
Belton is the SEA (Strength Endurance Academy) founder and is also the Assistant Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at USC. According to Belton, SEA is a youth fitness organization that hosts all kinds of sport camps for youth in L.A. and surrounding areas. “The camp was an awesome community initiative. For four hours those kids had the opportunity to fellowship with professional athletes from various sports, coaches, teachers and as well as community leaders. They were motivated and inspired to catch their dreams through hard work and dedication. I’m excited to be a part of the event next year,” said Belton.
Each drill focused on different training methods, from agility drills, to heavy rope strengthening training, sand bag tossing, ladder drills, and competitive 40 and 60 yard sprint races. “This the stuff that gets your body right,” Mickens shouted to the young athletes on the heavy rope. Sports Academy came out to assist and teach the importance of recovery through technology–based treatment methods and-on-the-field techniques.
In addition to the physical activities, the camp focused on challenging, uplifting and mentoring youth by connecting with them early. Mickens knows what it takes to overcome the challenges young athletes will face ahead. His “Out The Mud” program provides a true-to-life example of a young rising athlete who came from meager beginnings but pulled himself up and out of hopelessness. “I wasn’t drafted. I was constantly told no but that never stopped me,” said Mickens. He also promulgated his matra of “school and sports” being interrelated and not separate. “When you go to college, you will be labeled a student athlete … not just an athlete,” emphasized Mickens.
“Jaydon’s presence here today is vital for kids in this community. He is proof positive that results happen when you stay focused. Rancho Cienega and Dorsey High have rich histories of producing college and pro athletes; it’s always encouraging when they return and give back their time and resources. Jaydon is a class act,” said Phillip Wiley, assistant director RCSC.
Securing an NFL roster spot wasn’t easy for Mickens. After a strong college career at the University of Washington, he was not invited to the 2016 NFL combines and went undrafted that year. He likens his journey to treading though a thick and deep mud and having to struggle away from its dream-deferring pull. Some make it out, some don’t. Mickens’s story of resiliency is what Hollywood movies are made of.
But fight Mickens did, and step-by-step, he eventually made the Oakland Raiders practice squad but was signed and cut three times before signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars practice squad.
Although Mickens made the practice squad, the tumultuous life of an undrafted rookie made him feel unstable and unsure about his future. To save money, he slept in his car until he was eventually promoted to the active roster on October 21, against the Colts. But the world got a Hollywood-like introduction to Mickens on November 5th, when he scored his first NFL TD on an electrifying 63-yard punt return that he sealed with a front flip into the end zone against the Bengals.
Mickens was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week, and in Week 14, he made another spectacular play on a 72-yard punt return against the Seahawks, setting up a touchdown to give his underdog Jaguars a 14-point lead over the Seahawks, gaining AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors for the second time.
Used primarily for special teams, Mickens had only one reception leading up to Week 15 but replaced an injured receiver and had his biggest NFL game yet, with four catches for 61 yards and two second-quarter touchdowns to give the Jags a playoff-clinching victory over the Houston Texans. A star and humanitarian was born.
Mickens spoke to youth directly about making positive choices. He had a good rookie season and although just a sophomore as a pro, he isn’t waiting for multi-million dollar contracts to make a difference in the community that raised him. “The school stuff … the school stuff is the most important part of your lives now. School and sports. [In the NFL] I have to my homework before I can play in big stadiums,” Mickens said.
“Build up the youth. That’s what we do for the next generation. Big ups to Jaydon Mickens for being out here and providing his time to the kids,” said SEA trainer Coach T.C. Coaches and trainers collaborated, each bringing their individual methods but for one unified purpose. Trainer Foot Dr. Hart agreed. “You can’t build without a foundation; so, you build a foundation. You start with the youth and you start in your community. We’re just building great people out here,” he said.
Mickens and coaches thanked the participants for coming out and gave a special shout to the girls who participated. He urged the kids to use good judgment in life regardless of your surroundings. “I want y’all to conduct yourselves with integrity, behind closed doors in private and in front of everybody in public. Act accordingly so you can take it to the next level,” he said.
The participants were given autographed t-shirts, book bags, fed pizza, and left with unforgettable life lessons from a real-life superhero from their ‘hood. “That’s just the kind of kid Jaydon is. He cares about people,” said Judy, Mickens’ mom, who volunteers with the coordination and operation of his various humanitarian pursuits. She has been a confidant and witness throughout Mickens’ journey.
“I took the hard road. I kept being told no, I can’t play football anymore, but I got it ‘Out The Mud’ and kept grindin’ to show these dudes that I can play this sport at a high level,” Mickens said to the attentive group. He was grateful for the large turnout. “Hey, if you guys don’t show up today and give that effort and give everything you have, we don’t have a camp. I want you guys to keep that energy, that aggression and hunger to go out there and do great things. I appreciate y’all waking up on a Saturday and getting this work in with me. It’s a blessing and I appreciate y’all.”
As Mickens prepares for his sophomore NFL season, he is clearly focused on football and building young people and community. And just like his playing style, he’s aggressive, makes big plays, is a potential game changer, and knows how to make an impact.
When the event was over, Mickens, Belton, and a young participant took extra pizzas to the needy, who are known to live in back parking lot. Just like he has fought for his coveted NFL career, it appears Mickens couldn’t wait to be the leader he has become.
Additional Photos E. Mesiyah McGinnis
*** This story has been editing to include new information and images.