In recent years, the prevalence and importance of summer football camps for high schools prospects has soared. Two factors have contributed to this growth. The first is financial. Most university-run camps generate significant revenue for the host institutions, and those additional dollars help D-I and D-III programs alike offset some of the expenses they incur throughout the season. The camps also allow the coaches, particularly the assistants, to supplement their salaries.
The other factor, of course, is these camps allow college coaches to evaluate prospective recruits first-hand. High school game film and highlight videos only provide so much insight; camps allow coaches to examine a player's physique, temperament and work ethic. And perhaps most importantly, camps allow coaches to evaluate if a player possess the intangibles that are so crucial at the next level. Some schools put so much stock in in-person confirmation of what they've already seen on tape, they only offer scholarships to players who attend their camp. For many recruits, that makes the camps glorified tryouts.
But not all college football camps are so self-serving. The unprecedented Lauren's First and Goal Football Camp, which took place this past Sunday at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., breaks the mold. According to the NCAA, the one-day event is the largest in the country and draws more than 1,700 prospects and close to 300 college coaches from 100-plus schools. From Boston College and Rutgers to Asa Junior College and Moravian, hundreds of coaches voluntarily drive to Easton and give up a day for a 12-year-old girl named Lauren.
Lauren Loose survived cancer. Doctors diagnosed the daughter of Lafayette defensive coordinator John Loose and his wife Marianne with Neurofibromatosis, Moyamoya disease and Evan's Syndrome at nine months old. As Lauren battled brain and spinal cord tumors, John and Marianne would agonize over what they could do to help their daughter's cause. "We just felt like we needed to do something," Marianne said. "When someone tells you your child has cancer, you feel like you lose all control. This is our chance to do something cathartic and take back some of the control." Shortly after attending a motorcycle ride sponsored by the Pediatric Brian Tumor Foundation of the United States, the answer dawned on them.
"I was working a camp at the University of Michigan," John said. "There were so many coaches and kids there, and I thought maybe I could do a camp like that for one day and raise a bunch of money for charity. I ran it by some guys at the [American Football Coaches Association] and every one of them said immediately that they were in."
Since its humble beginning, the camp has grown exponentially, raising more than $750,000 for the Lauren's First and Goal Foundation, a 501c3 charitable organization created in 2004 to support pediatric brain tumor research and provide pediatric cancer services and financial assistance to families living with a pediatric cancer diagnosis.
The camp's success isn't lost on the unquestioned star of the show. "It's very cool that all of these people come and donate the money," Lauren said. "I really can't believe it, it is so generous of them and makes me feel special."
Despite Lauren's gratitude ("I have to thank my parents for all of the time they put in," she said. "They work like dogs all day.") and the camp's success, 2009 may bring changes. Recent NCAA restrictions limit the amount of time D-I coaches can spend working at summer camps. The new rule, designed to give coaches a reprieve from the abundance of camps nationwide, restricts D-I coaches to only work at camps during two university-designated 15-day periods, one in June and one in July.
The rule benefits coaches who felt compelled to attend every camp for fear of missing out on an elite prospect. In the arms race that is college football recruiting, no coach wants to hurt his chances of landing a stud simply for declining a camp invite, but the camp circuit can have a significant impact on a coach's already full schedule.
But there's a down side to the new rule, too: It would prevent coaches who hosted their own camps during the permissible timeframe from attending Lauren's First and Goal, which takes place the first Sunday in June.
Mercifully, the NCAA has granted Lauren's First and Goal a one-year exemption from the new rule. Many are concerned, however, that absent another adjustment the restrictions will negatively impact the camp moving forward.
"This epitomizes college coaches coming together for something good," said Pitt assistant coach Brian Angelichio. "Every person here volunteers with no personal agendas whatsoever."
Another coach from a BCS school, who wished to remain anonymous, echoed that sentiment. "The NCAA would be absolutely crazy not to 'grandfather' this camp," he said. "We have been coming here well before the rule was put into place."
The NCAA, however, remains wary of exemptions and exceptions because of the precedent they create. If it provides an exemption for this charity camp, it's possible questionably motivated 501c3-designated camps will crop up across the country in an effort to exploit the charity loophole.
Still, it's hard to imagine the NCAA wants to force an organization that's done such good for so many to take a step back. Though it's not clear how badly the lack of a solution would damage the camp, a quick straw poll of some of the student-athletes in attendance revealed most make the trek to Easton specifically to display their wares for D-I coaches. The prospects are more than happy to make the minimum $25 donation, as long as the coaches are present. But if NCAA restrictions prevent those coaches from attending, the players might stop attending, too. Though the organization's riding the momentum of a $100,000 donation from the Special Needs Trust Administration and attempting to secure a corporate sponsor, the domino attendance drop could have a crushing impact.
Lauren, for her part, remains oblivious to the NCAA situation. After recent surgery to remove a tumor from her spinal cord, Lauren suffered a stroke that required additional surgery to transplant blood vessels from her scalp to her brain. She's got too much on her plate to worry about the bureaucratic dealings unfolding around her. She's only worried about one thing.
"Spread the word about the camp so more people come here and donate money," Lauren said. "Every time they come here, it helps."
Ross Tucker covers the NFL for SI.com and Sirius NFL Radio.