Mitch King knows what it is like to be a high school football player, trying to learn new skills as your body continues to grow, thoughts of college and pro football dancing in your head.
King, a graduate of Burlington High School, was one of the few lucky people who actually got to live his dream. He went on to earn All-America honors playing defensive line for Iowa, then spent four years in the NFL before moving to Iowa City, where he is a real estate entrepreneur in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids area.
King remembers growing up in Burlington, having to travel sometimes hundreds of miles to go to football camp. It paid off as he got most of his college paid for through scholarships, leaving him nearly debt free by the time he got his diploma from Iowa.
King wanted to find a way to give back to the sport he loves and the community he grew up in and help a few kids along the way. So seven years ago he started the Mitch King Extra Heartbeat Football Academy, an annual event taking place Saturday and Sunday at the Burlington Regional RecPlex. It is King's way of giving back and there was nowhere he would rather be on a hot mid-July day than helping kids get better, both as players and as people.
"Our fundamentals stay the same. Our camp stays the same. It's character, hard work and a little bit of football. What we're doing this morning is we have a combine specific testing day. This morning from 9-11:30 we test the broad jump, the 40-yard dash, the pro agility, vertical, height and weight. That give the kids a baseline to go into the season, to go into their year of growth. When they come back and they test at their high schools and middle schools, they have that baseline. I've always said you can't set goals for yourself unless you know where you're at. This gives them a baseline to always continuously grow and get better at it," King said. "From 11-1 we have a youth camp. They'll come in. USA Football sponsored us. So we're having a youth camp down there. And then from 1-4 p.m. for teens from 6-12 we are having football specific testing today where we go through all the drills. It's not just baseline fundamentals. We do a step above it where we're teaching concepts to teach them football, not just a stance and start and where to put your hands kind of thing."
There were hundreds of area youth on hand, testing their skills and soaking in knowledge from such former Iowa players as Mikkel Brown, Parker Hesse, Trevor Bollers and current BHS head football coach and athletics director Zach Shay, who spent much of the last 10 days in Iowa City, where his wife gave birth to a baby girl.
It was an opportunity for kids of all ages to learn proper fundamentals, get better as players, learn from some of the best players and coaches around and learn a few life skills in the process.
"This is my first year of playing football. I just want to do my best for my school and my team, so I signed up for camps over the summer so I can get better," said Notre Dame High School sophomore Aiden Kniffen."I learned that I am faster than I thought. I didn't think I could run that fast. It's kind of cool to see the NFL players out here, like (Tyler's) cousin Mitch. I'm not going to go to college to play, but it looked like a fun sport to play so I decided to pick it up."
"I'm out here trying to get better. I'm learning that it takes hard work to get better," said Burlington High School freshman Nolan Simpson, cousin of BHS assistant coach and strength and conditioning coach Matt Seabold. "I have to get faster, that's for sure. I need to run a lot."
"I learned to keep getting better and learning every day," said BHS senior linebacker Nash Garlow. "This is great because they've been in college and the NFL and we get to learn from them. It's getting me ready. I like my numbers, but they can always get better, I'm ready to improve for the season."
"I am learning to work harder and learning the mentality in football to keep pushing yourself to get better and improve yourself," said BHS offensive lineman Tyler Bailey, who is attending the Academy for the sixth straight year. "The new faces. There is always a new coach teaching us something new and helping me become a better player. It's a fun experience. They obviously know a lot more than we do. They can help us improve and make us better players."
For King and some of the coaches, it was a chance to get out in the fresh air and refresh their memories as the start of high school football practice is just a month away.
"I feel that the guys we bring back, coaches who are able to teach the game, not just be babysitters," King said. "Be able to come back and teach the game at a higher level. I think kids appreciate it and I think the parents really do. Other than football, we teach character. We teach hard work. We teach leadership out here. That's the biggest thing. You're learning more about the game of life that you are about the game of football and you don't really know it."
King got a chance to see the newly-refurbished Bracewell Stadium in Friday night. They held their third annual Lineman Challenge at the famed stadium where King once put fear into opposing teams back in the day.
"We were down there (Friday) night for the lineman challenge. It's beautiful. I've always said that Bracewell Stadium has a special feeling and probably the neatest high school stadium in Iowa, if not the Midwest," Kings said. "I'm really excited to see them doing some stuff to keep up with the times and sprucing it up a little bit. It's really nice. The Purple and Gray Foundation are doing a great job of raising money and putting that back into what gets kids excited."
King reaped the rewards for the hard work he sewed. Now, he wants to give the next generation of student-athletes the same opportunities he was afforded. And a few he wasn't afforded.
"Our main goal is to raise funds to help kids to continue on to school. I knew how big of a head start I got from a scholarship. I never appreciated it when I was in school. But when I left school with no debt and I look back and now I can start my life with my wife and my kid and I can say I don't have student loans. It's a real step ahead in life and I want to help these kids out as much as I can," said King, whose Foundation has given out over $80,000 in scholarships to area girls and boys through the last seven years. "I knew I was lucky. I was fortunate enough to earn a scholarship to go to Iowa and play in the NFL. I knew that what I learned in football taught me to be the man I am today. That's why I knew that I had to give back, some way, somehow. That's where I came up with teaching them a little bit about life and football."