Unique football training curriculum replacing middle school hits South Jersey, led by NLG founder Marcus Hammond

Updated Apr 24, 2019; Posted Apr 24, 2019


By Todderick Hunt | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

A unique youth student-athlete opportunity is coming to South Jersey this fall, as the Scholar Athletes Leadership Academy (Pitman, N.J.) is adding football. For three years, the school has developed soccer student-athletes, but will now add the gridiron sport, enlisting Next Level Greats founder Marcus Hammond to head its football training program.

For years, NLG has provided exposure for some of South Jersey’s best high school football talent through 7-on-7 tournaments, often resulting in college scholarship offers. Now Hammond is taking parts of that model to develop a certified academic and athletic curriculum replacing traditional middle school.

“We are going to deal with middle school players, so sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade, reclassified eight graders,” Hammond said in an exclusive interview with NJ Advance Media. “The program matches everything we try to do at NLG from an academic excellence standpoint to putting an emphasis on the right type of athletic training.

“If you look at a lot of high schools, it’s an antiquated model. Kids are taking classes they aren’t going to need for college or use in life. So for the guys in our program that specifically want to become college football players, the academy is going to have them take the required courses to be a successful college student-athlete, while eliminating the fluff.”

The school’s leadership would likely not have added football so soon if Hammond hadn’t hopped on board.

“We’ve had people from the football and wrestling worlds that would contact us proactively about sending their scholar-athletes to our school, and we pushed back because we didn’t find the right partner until we met Marcus,” president Sam Gough said. “We were impressed with what he’s been doing and all the opportunities he’s opened up in the football world and we feel now is the right time to bring in that second discipline, and have Marcus come in with us and grow that program.”

The model is similar to IMG Academy where four hours are dedicated to academic instruction with four more dedicated to on-field instruction and strength and conditioning training.

“We have what we call an athletic sandwich where our scholar athletes are doing two intense rigorous training sessions twice a day,” said Gough. “The meat to the sandwich is the academics to ensure they have rigorous, intense, high-level instruction, high-level academic performance.”

There’s data Gough points to that shows that interconnecting athletic activity with academics can increase brain function throughout the day.

“All we know about brain based research suggests that once you train and the serotonin is released and the amygdala in the brain is simulated that you are going to learn math better, you are going to perform better in English, you are going to comprehend things better,” Gough said.

Residential strength and conditioning trainer and nutritionist Matt Zubak echoed that sentiment, but from a different angle.

He’s worked at Velocity Sports Performance and Parisi Speed School in Cherry Hill, for various arena football teams, and three years with Stanford University’s strength and conditioning staff, focused on football and wrestling development.

“One of the worst things you can do after sitting all day, as student-athletes tend to do in traditional school, is to get up from a desk and go lift weights and play football. That’s really dangerous injury-wise,” Zubak said. “You see a high prevalence of soft tissue injuries in youth athletes because they go from zero to 160. But being able to kind of train and move and build their day around academics and training will help them reach their goals.”

The majority of New Jersey high school programs don’t boast dedicated strength and conditioning professionals under their roofs. It’s usually an assistant on staff which absorbs that role, but that’s not the case here.

“The benefits of a school having a qualified, experienced professional who knows where that finish line is, is invaluable. So that’s someone who is solely dedicated to the weight room efforts, the nutrition, body composition goals, injury resistance rehab that could be really effective and specialized for each individual athlete,” Zubak said. “And that’s not really in the budget or resources for most schools in the area.”

Middle school players will attend school and train during the day but in the evening will still compete for their local youth teams.

As the first groups of players ascend to high school, the program will could add a freshman then junior varsity football team, before ultimately becoming a varsity team with its own feeder system.

Timber Creek head coach Rob Hinson has sent as many players to FBS schools as any other coach in South Jersey. So, he appreciates top high school talent as much as anyone. Although not of proponent of losing players to private schools, he respects the boldness of Hammond’s idea. However, there could be blow-back from other public high school programs down the line.

“I called to congratulate (Marcus) on having a vision and working hard to make it come to fruition in terms of impacting South Jersey," Hinson said. "It could have a big impact and then again it may not. Obviously, guys that go through there will get coached up, trained and prepared for high school.

"The part that we haven’t really addressed yet is, obviously, at some point their goal will be to have a high school team. That’s probably where the opposition will come from, but everybody has a choice now to go wherever they want, so that would just be another choice.”

Peddie (Hightstown, N.J.) head coach Chris Malleo sees all upside to what the Scholar Athletes Leadership Academy is doing, as his Falcons also fall outside the jurisdiction of the NJSIAA, and have attained as many scholarship offers as any prep school in New Jersey in recent years.

“I can’t speak any opposition to it. I want to help him. I told him that in a voicemail. When it comes to the academic curriculum and some of the stuff that he might need help with, I’m happy to do that because I think it’s brilliant what he’s doing," Malleo said. "It’s easy for people to look at this and say this is just some football academy or however they want to talk about it. But I would say people who look at it that way are incredibly short-sighted because it’s about opportunity.

"This whole program is about opportunity. And there are going to be some kids in this program that the opportunity for them to go to college is the greatest equalizer for football. That’s it. So, why would we not celebrate that and help support those kids?”

By developing its own talent, the academy hopes to avoid conflict with local schools.

“Since we are starting out as a middle school program, there’s no immediate conflict of interest,” Hammond said. “We are not going to be pulling players from other schools, we won’t have to deal with transfers.”

Tuition has yet to be determined but will be “comparable to private schools in the area,” Hammond says, including limited scholarships. Classes will be held out of Total Turf Experience in Pitman, New Jersey.

“With it being at Total Turf, now you have your classroom settings and you only have to walk 30 feet to get to the turf or 50 feet to get to the weight room. There’s also a cafeteria set-up,” Hammond said. “Everything is there for you.”

The school boasts a five-to-one student-teacher ratio as it promotes individualized academic support. Teachers will teach classes in-person, but the majority of the work will be done on tablets.

Unlike IMG, the Scholar Athletes Leadership Academy is a commuter-based program which doesn’t include housing, but could in the coming years. Also in contrast of IMG is its reluctance to poach proven high school players from throughout the country.

“We are not going to try to take players from other schools that are in 10th, 11th or 12th grade, because if we do this the right way and we are successful, our players will come from our own institution in sixth, seventh and eighth grade,” Hammond said. “The private schools down the road don’t have to fear us trying to recruit their guys for us to field a high school team. We don’t want to do that.”

However, the school won’t be a member of the NJSIAA and isn’t required to adhere to its recruiting and transfer restrictions.

Players will also be exposed to colleges without the fear of unexcused absences as visits will be a part of the curriculum.

“One of the things that is really important is throughout the school year, there are breaks in which the soccer players will travel to Europe and do camps with professional clubs,” Hammond said. “So, the school is closed during those times, and we’ll be visiting colleges like we do at NLG.”

The school leadership feels it has a sustainable business model even if it were to remain a middle school program, as players can develop for three years before attending either required area high schools or private schools of their choice.

The school encourages cross training, and plans to add other sports via the current model over the coming years.

To learn more about the football program at Scholar Athletes Leadership Academy, please email info@scholar-athletes.com.

Todderick Hunt may be reached at thunt@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @TodderickHunt. Find NJ.com Rutgers Football on Facebook.

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