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Such optimism is critical to find redemption — especially for the players. Made up of former collegiate stars and spurned NFL prospects, most are in their mid- to late 20s, and hang onto the possibility of getting another chance to play in the pros. Keeping the faith is tough, especially with the NFL lockout and the very real threat of a lost season looming. It's a humbling experience for some, especially players such as Junior Rosegreen, who was an All-American safety at Auburn University and considered one of the best at his position in college.
A Miami native, Rosegreen was a key cog in Auburn's undefeated season in 2004, finishing his senior year with 57 tackles and six interceptions, including a miraculous performance against Tennessee, when he snagged four interceptions in a single game. But he went undrafted by the NFL in 2005. He ultimately broke the roster of the Seattle Seahawks as a free agent, but was released in 2006.
"It's not about what you know, it's who you know," Rosegreen says, explaining that he got stuck behind players with recently signed, multimillion-dollar contracts, and found Seattle was too invested in those players to give him a realistic chance. It's a message he imparts on the campers during spring break.
"I knew I was going to get drafted. I played in the Senior Bowl, started in the Senior Bowl," he tells the kids. "Never been in trouble, did everything right. Sometimes, the best don't make it."
Rosegreen, a lean 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, has a strict, jaw-clenching edginess about him, and during the camp he carries a police bullhorn and snaps at the young players when they interrupt or goof off. "There is people in the NFL — just being honest with you — that's terrible, that's garbage, don't got no business being in the NFL," he tells them. "But they are there because they know somebody."
The 40 or so kids who attend the camp are all black and from the inner city, some of the toughest neighborhoods in Richmond. Some are from broken homes, public housing, drug-filled streets. All manner of educators and social workers will struggle to break through and reach them. But the Raiders, massive men who play professionally the very game they idolize — have no such trouble breaking through.
Despite his own ups and downs, Rosegreen enjoys working with the kids, and they seem to feed off each other. After a few snits and giggles, Rosegreen breaks the barrier for good when he mentions the hit. It was against the University of Georgia in 2004. Rosegreen launched himself at Georgia receiver Reggie Brown for a vicious collision, which knocked Brown unconscious.
The hit was so violent it was featured on a Monday Night Football segment known as "Jacked Up," and can still be found on YouTube seven years later.
"If God give me the opportunity, I'm going to get back," he says to the young players, who now seem interested in only one thing.
"Can we see the video?" somebody asks, and one of Rosegreen's teammates hands him an iPhone while the kids rush to the center of the room, surrounding him.
Climbing over the wall of vulnerability, and instilling hope in young men who've had little to hope for, isn't something Elizabeth Fraizer really considered when she and her husband took over the Raiders. They always wanted the players to do community outreach, but they had no idea how far-reaching it would be. Or that the players not only would commit to visiting schools, mentoring, and taking hours out of their week for no additional pay to spend time with at-risk students — but also would yearn for it.
"We knew we'd have an impact," Fraizer says, "but not like this."
Stephen Cason, a star defensive back for the College of William and Mary and a near lock to break an NFL roster when he graduated in 2006, has been chasing the dream ever since. A car accident in 2003 had sidelined his career — he broke his neck and was told by doctors he would never play football again — but he managed to not just come back, but to become a star whose interception against the University of Delaware on Dec. 4, 2004, sparked a 21-point comeback that sent the game into double overtime, which the Tribe eventually won 44-38. It was the quarterfinals of NCAA Division I-AA playoffs.
"They had me rated on ESPN, Mel Kiper and all that stuff," Cason recalls. "I didn't even get invited to camp. It was a shock."
Red-flagged as an injury risk, not getting drafted or invited to a single NFL training camp devastated Cason, who spent the first three months of his post-college career depressed, barely able to get out of bed in the morning. "I lost it," he says.
Cason eventually started working out again, making his way into arena football for the next couple of years. He was making strides, edging toward the upper arena leagues. Then in 2009 the Arena Football League folded. He signed a contract to play in the Canadian Football League, with the B.C. Lions in Vancouver. He nearly left for Canada and quit his Richmond job as a financial adviser at Union First Market Bank. But just before he was set to leave, the Lions released him.
Now he teaches ninth- and 10th-grade algebra at Community High School in Chesterfield County, and runs a small real estate business when he's not playing for the Raiders. After being released from the Lions, he slowly came to realize he could have a greater impact outside of football.
"I didn't want to be one of these guys that continues to hold on and live trying to get that shot," Cason says. "I just decided it's not just football, there's more to it."
Cason, who also coaches basketball at Community, is teaching one of his players how to drive after school (the player lives with his mother, who works multiple jobs). At a church in Mechanicsville, he also mentors children whose parents are incarcerated. At the April 16 game, Genesis Toliver Jr., age 8, is in the stands just behind the Raiders' bench. Toward the end of the game, Cason motions for Genesis to come down the steps, past security, to join him on the sidelines.
Sitting on a toolbox behind the trainers, Genesis seems star-struck while Cason tells him he needs to leave for a bit to play defense as the clock winds down, and the Raiders secure their fourth victory of the season against Fayetteville, 61-43.
Genesis is polite and wide-eyed when the players, such as wide receiver Redd Thompson, stop by to chat. Cason takes off his helmet and gives it to Genesis, who tries it on. It seems to swallow him whole. "He plays for a football team and he's rich!" Genesis says excitedly.