A few days ago, Thursday to be exact, I was getting ready to go to Memorial Stadium for an interview with Illinois defensive back Tailon Leitzsey. An email from Illini football sports information director Brett Moore cited that Leitzsey was going to discuss a free football camp he’ll be hosting this upcoming Saturday in Champaign.
The assignment, from my perspective, seemed simple enough: Show up, ask a few questions and then write a feel-good story about a positive event. And while that’s still true as you all read this column right now, I’d like to give you a little bit more of the back story.
You see, just before I left my apartment, I decided to Google Leitzsey’s name. That’s basically a routine for me as the new guy trying to become more familiar with names and faces on the Illini beat. And when I read through Leitzsey’s bio on the Illinois athletics website, nothing really stood out except the fact that he’d been elevated from a walk-on to a scholarship athlete in the spring.
So, on a whim I Googled, “Tailon Leitzsey walk-on” and it all clicked. I came across a story from one of my colleagues, Illini Inquirer’s Joey Wagner, which beautifully detailed Leitzsey’s unlikely journey from South Carolina to Central Illinois.
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A path that included one year of high school football, a scholarship to NAIA Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis, giving up said scholarship for a shot at Power Five football at Illinois, working two jobs to pay for college, walking on with the Illini, becoming a father and eventually earning a scholarship from first-year coach Bret Bielema.
Oh, and not to be forgotten, when Leitzsey did actually find time to sleep, there was a stretch when he slept in his car across the street from the team’s practice facility.
So, with all of that in mind, I could not wait to ask Leitzsey a simple question last Thursday about his upcoming camp: Why host it for free? Since name, image and likeness (NIL) legislation was passed July 1, NCAA athletes nationwide are able to run camps for profit. After getting a glimpse of Leitzsey’s background, I don’t think anyone would blame him if he decided to cash in.
But, that’s not his mission.
“Well, so it’s actually funny you say that. I was working on doing a free camp before NIL even passed,” Leitzsey said when answering my question. “I really just want to give back. Like I said, it’s not about money for me. It’s more about just helping the kids not go that (bad) route. If they can come to this camp and they can just learn something that will take them off the path that they might think they’re headed down, then that’s my goal.
“Just to be able to change one life.”
That answer was equally as inspiring as it was galvanizing for me. It gave me chills to hear it, and it’s giving me chills again just replaying that response in my head.
My respect for Leitzsey was already high. I mean, how could it not be after everything he’s overcome? But even still, you don’t go through what he goes through and come out of the other side with that level of selflessness unless there’s something in you that sets you apart.
And while I get the impression that Leitzsey is way too humble to ever flat out say it, I’ll say it for him.
The senior defensive back has a heart bigger than his body, and instead of keeping it to himself, he’d rather give it away in its purest form — for free.
“I live in Urbana and I’ve seen just over the last year a rise in crime, and when I was looking up some of the news, I realized that a lot of the people doing the crime were younger people,” Leitzsey said. “And that was something that really touched my heart and I wanted to be able to kind of help the youth before they get to that point, (before) they get to that point where they need to do that. That’s kind of where this idea came from to do a free camp.”
Leitzsey, with the help of roughly 30 Illini teammates, will host the free camp Saturday at Zahnd Field in Champaign from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The senior said the age range for the camp is 6-13 years old, with 13 usually being the age just before someone enters high school. Leitzsey explained that allowing high school-age kids to participate could be viewed as a recruiting event by the NCAA and lead to violations, which is why 13 is the age cap.
Plus, he reiterated that his overarching objective is to positively impact the kids at their most impressionable ages, so the younger the better.
Leitzsey talked about how a lot of kids in the Champaign-Urbana community, like countless others around the country, dream of being in the position that he’s in now — suiting up for a Division I program and playing in front of thousands of fans.
And while that may be a long shot for most of the campers Saturday, Leitzsey wants them to know that it’s still possible.
Because seeing is believing.
“Dreams all start with something that you saw. You can’t dream about something you never saw,” Leitzsey said. “There’s going to be kids there that want to do this, whether it’s here or at another university. Being able to see somebody else do that and being able to ask them questions like, ‘How did you get to this point? What are some tips that you would give me to get here?’ I think that is very important.”
Leitzsey said he’ll have no problem sharing his personal journey if a youngster gets curious. He describes himself as “an open book,” and I think that openness will translate well Saturday.
The former walk-on said he’s already received donations of camp equipment from DICK’S Sporting Goods in Champaign, and he plans on turning this free inaugural event into a yearly one.
Sure, Leitzsey could make some money if he attached even a small participation fee to the camp. But the way he sees it, there is no price you can put on the hearts and minds of the youth.
And for that, all I can do is tip my cap, knowing that the kids who cross paths with Leitzsey and his teammates Saturday will probably remember those encounters for a lifetime.
“That’s actually one of my things in life that I just want to do, just be able to help people, just inspire them to do more and be better,” Leitzsey said. “I feel like there was a lot of people that inspired me to do more and be better, and I just want to be the same person for somebody else.
“Help them feel like they can go achieve whatever it is they set out to do.”
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James Crawford // LB
Clayton Fejeldem // SAF
Josh Ferguson // RB
Justin Hardee // DB
Michael Hoomanawanui // TE
Ted Karras // OG
Matt LaCosse // TE
Corey Liuget // DE
Whitney Mercilus // DE
Hardy Nickerson Jr. // LB
Carroll Phillips // DE
Dawuane Smoot // DE
Akeem Spence // DT
Jihad Ward // DE
Tavon Wilson // FS
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