Getting a group of teenage boys to unite for a common goal can be difficult for any high school football program.
But an even greater challenge unfolds each fall at Spring Mountain Youth Camp, where gridiron dreams aren’t realized unless players begin to reform their lives.
Those players are juvenile delinquents, who as part of their probation for various crimes are serving an average of six months at the camp nestled 8,470 feet above Las Vegas at Angels Peak in the Toiyabe National Forest area near Mount Charleston.
For the Eagles, who play eight-man football in the Class 1A Southern League, every year is a rebuilding year.
“We’re taking kids from different ethnic backgrounds, different races, different religions, different gangs,” said Lamont Hicks, a former UNLV linebacker who serves as Spring Mountain’s defensive coordinator. “When we first put these teams together, these kids don’t speak to each other. They don’t really like each other because it’s all about the tough-guy image.
“But after just a couple days of them sweating and working hard together, they kind of have a mutual respect. It puts all the street life, the other crap that’s gotten them to this point, out of the picture.”
Spring Mountain’s enrollment currently hovers around 100 and is more than 250 for the year, principal Frank Cooper said. While the average stay is six months, some stay longer if they have behavioral problems.
Camp manager Michael Whelihan said boys ages 12 to 18 are sent to Spring Mountain for crimes that “would be considered felonies for most adults.”
All three members of the Eagles’ coaching staff are juvenile probation officers. And all three played college football, two at UNLV.
Second-year head coach Aaron Masden played running back at Division III University of St. Thomas (Minn.) from 1994-95.
Hicks lettered for UNLV from 1994-96.
Special teams coordinator Tony Pierce was a defensive back for the Rebels in the late 1990s.
And while Spring Mountain’s players have a long road toward attending college — let alone earning an athletic scholarship — the coaching staff is an everyday reminder of what hard work can bring.
“Football got me a free education,” Pierce said. “It taught me discipline, how to be a team player, have confidence in myself, and I just rolled it over in life.”
While players who come through the program moving on to play college football is rare, it is not unheard of.
One example is defensive lineman Kenny Mack, who was not at Spring Mountain during football season but worked on technique with the coaching staff.
After leaving Spring Mountain, Mack starred as a senior at Arbor View in 2008. He orally committed to UNLV in April but now is at Fort Scott Community College (Kan.) in hopes of becoming eligible to play at a four-year school.
“(Mack) would always ask me techniques, things he could do as a defensive lineman, so I’d always work with him,” Hicks said.
Several others have gone on to play at Class 4A schools, Masden said.
But Spring Mountain quarterback Robby Lindbloom said the coaching staff doesn’t only preach football knowledge.
“They don’t only teach us football,” he said. “They teach us life skills. We’re really privileged to have them here.”
Spring Mountain tight end/defensive end Marquise Lewis agreed.
“One thing (Masden) always says is to be disciplined,” he said. “I take that to be disciplined on the field and off the field. If we’re disciplined on the field, we’ll be disciplined off the field.”
Many of the Eagles’ players are competing in a team sport for the first time.
“It’s a big learning experience for them,” Masden said. “Some of the things you think would come naturally playing team sports have to be actually drawn out.
“But the benefit is, we can see the growth daily, weekly, and certainly we’re a completely different team than in August.”
Masden said his team generally is treated with respect on the road, but the program has its detractors.
“For the most part, we’re treated just like every other high school football team,” he said. “But from time to time, there tends to be a thought process that because our kids are adjudicated delinquent youth, that they shouldn’t have the right to play football.
“We just try to teach our kids to be classy and deal with it in the football way, on the field.”
Lindbloom is grateful to have football as an outlet.
“This is a privilege for us,” he said. “This isn’t just something that we expect. We come out here and work hard. We don’t take this for granted.”
Spring Mountain plays home games on an artificial turf field that was constructed in 2005 for about $500,000 with the help of an anonymous donor.
Masden said the camp’s picturesque surroundings are “real important” in giving students a glimpse into a different environment.
“It’s a beautiful setting that a lot of them had never been in,” he said. “We can get them out of the environment they’re having difficulties in, give them a moment of pause and teach them some new life skills.”
At 3-1 overall and 2-0 in league, Spring Mountain is off to its best start since opening 2005 — its last playoff season — at 6-1.
After rallying for a 46-42 home win over rival Indian Springs on Friday, the Eagles stormed the field in a wild celebration.
Before the game, Spring Mountain players hopped excitedly in a huddle, chanting, “We are the Eagles!”
Moments later, captains Lewis, Lindbloom, Clarence Torres and James Maestas locked arms and walked to midfield for the coin toss.
The Eagles fell behind by 14 points in the second quarter and by 12 midway through the fourth but rallied both times.
Spring Mountain scored 24 points in the final seven minutes on the way to a thrilling victory.
The game could be viewed as a microcosm of the challenge facing every Eagles player: to overcome prior mistakes and achieve a goal.
“That experience right there is something they’ll remember forever,” Whelihan said.
A far cry from not talking to each another at the start of practice.