“Show what you’re made of,” he barks. “Get your mind right! Don’t walk off that field saying, ‘I could have done better.’”
His enthusiasm inspires the team.
As a PEOPLE reporter looks on, the players bound to their feet, forming a circle as they chant, “One, two, three, win!”
It’s what one would expect of a take-no-prisoners Texas football team.
But the Tri-County Titans aren’t burly teenagers. They’re elementary school kids playing for the Texas Youth Football Association, a group of leagues whose youngest members playing tackle are 6 years old.
Fiercely competitive and decidedly anti-coddling, the TYFA’s hardcore tackling philosophy has thrust the players into the national spotlight.
Earlier this year, the league was profiled on Friday Night Tykes, a reality show airing on the Esquire Network.
The show, which will tape its second season later this year, portrays the kiddie-sports teams at their best – and worst.
PEOPLE sat in on several games and practices, and spoke with coach Smith about the controversial league.
For much more on the controversy surrounding TYFA, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE Magazine
Devon Walker (center) with head coach Sean Payton (left)
New Orleans Saints‘ Coach Sean Payton made the announcement at a press conference after Saturday’s Rookie Camp practice and surprised Walker, who had come from graduation ceremonies at Tulane University, where he studied cell and molecular biology.
Walker suffered a spinal injury on Sept. 8, 2012 – leaving him paralyzed from the neck down – when he collided with another player while playing safety for Tulane.
“When Devon got hurt, his football career was just starting to take off after three years of hard work,” Payton said on the New Orleans Saints website.
“Despite the devastating injury he suffered, Devon refuses to let that define him. He is an outstanding young man, who is not only an inspiration to his coaches and teammates at Tulane, but to all of us. Devon’s character, determination, intelligence and work ethic are everything that we look for in a New Orleans Saint when we sign a player.”
Walker said getting a contract from the Saints was “like one of my dreams come true,” reported the Associated Press.
“I’ve been a Saints fan almost since I was walking as a child,” said Walker, who grew up in the New Orleans suburb of Destrehan. “Just to be a part of the team and be around the players is more than I could hope for.”
At the press conference, Payton said he was proud of Walker’s recovery.
“All of [the players] became better for having been around Devon and the inspiration he’s given,” Payton said at the conference. “It rubs off. We’re excited to have him.”
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“I understand how big this is,” he tells ESPN. “It’s a big deal. No one has done this before. And it’s kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be. … I want to be a football player in the NFL.”
Sam, 24, had already told close friends and last August came out to his teammates during a preseason training camp when the coaches asked players to tell “a little about ourselves.”
“And their reaction was like, ‘Michael Sam finally told us,’” he recalls to ESPN. “They supported me from day one. I couldn’t have better teammates. … I’m telling you what: I wouldn’t have the strength to do this today if I didn’t know how much support they’d given me this past semester.”
The Texas-raised, 6′ 2″, 260-lb. senior leaves Missouri as one the nation’s top college players. He was defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference and his teammates voted him most valuable player. He is predicted to be drafted into the NFL in the third round this May.
“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” he tells the Times. “I just want to own my truth.”
Joe Robbins / Getty
Last spring, NBA player Jason Collins became the first athlete in a major pro sport to come out, though at the time he was a free agent and has not played since.