For college athletic recruiters, Florida is a gold mine of talented prospects.
The Sunshine State also happens to be home to more than 30,000 foster children, many of whom grow up without a stable place to call their own. Sometimes, those two groups overlap.
That is the case for 17-year-old Marcos Sanchez, a promising junior on the Brandon High School football team and a product of the foster care system. For Sanchez, special opportunities to attract the attention of college coaches are not always available.
That's where an organization called Angels for Foster Kids, with the support of the Glazer Family Foundation, was able to help. A grant from the Foundation just happened to coincide perfectly with a request from the young athlete, and now Sanchez has an opportunity that will help him pursue his dream.
"Our list for granting wishes is always much longer than the funding, so as money comes in it's usually already spent," said Margaret Iuculano, the nonprofit's founder.
Angels for Foster Kids helps to improve the quality of life of foster children throughout the United States. Among the charity's numerous programs is the DreamMakers initiative, which funds special experiences and opportunities that children otherwise could not afford.
In January, Iuculano was invited to One Buccaneer Place to accept a grant from the Glazer Family Foundation on behalf of her organization, which had submitted an application in hopes of receiving funds to sponsor athletic camps and equipment for their foster children.
Hours after accepting the award from Foundation Co-President Darcie Glazer Kassewitz, Iuculano received a request for Sanchez to attend a high-level football camp in Orlando. The timing couldn't have been better.
"It equals out the playing field, because I really didn't have anybody to do this for me," said Sanchez. "I appreciate a lot that I can go to the camp with my team, because without [the grant] I wouldn't be able to go."
On Friday, Sanchez will head to Oviedo, Florida to participate in the Football Tech youth camp to receive valuable instruction from veteran NFL players and coaches. Football Tech camps are among the nation's most selective, and they can be very helpful in securing a college scholarship.
"Only the coaches get to nominate participants – very few kids get to go – so Marcos was chosen out of hundreds of kids to participate in this camp," said Iuculano. "The hope is that some college coach that will be there will see his potential and recruit him."
Brandon Head Coach John Lima was thrilled when he learned that Sanchez could attend the camp. Lima, the Buccaneers' 2010 High School Coach of the Year, has incorporated study hall, community service and offseason training into the Eagles' football program. As a result, his team has seen steady success both on and off the field. The upcoming camp will help build on those improvements.
"These camps are $300, and without anybody picking that money up, he's not going," said Lima. "So it's going to help him football-wise, but I think it also helps him attitude and hope-wise by saying, 'Hey, there is somebody else out there looking out for me,' so it's just another step closer to his ultimate goal. The closer we can get him, the more motivated he's going to get. We've got a lot of people trying to help him, but ultimately it's got to be him doing it himself. He's got the drive to do it, he's got great character, so if anybody deserves to have extra help doing that, it's him."
Before heading to Orlando, Sanchez and the rest of his Brandon High School teammates got a little extra motivation from an NFL player from their own backyard: Buccaneers linebacker and Riverview High School graduate Tyrone McKenzie.
McKenzie visited the Eagles' campus on Monday to speak to Brandon's football squad and lend support to a teenager who has overcome much more than opposition on the football field.
"It means a lot that somebody that plays in the NFL takes their time to come out here and talk to the whole team to give us some advice on what we're going to go through in life and what could happen," said Sanchez. "I really appreciate it, and I think the whole team appreciates it."
Gathered in the school's library, McKenzie spoke to the more than 60 student-athletes on the importance of finding a "drive" to help inspire their efforts. The linebacker spoke directly from experience, having overcome numerous obstacles on his path to the NFL. McKenzie was raised in a single-parent household following the passing of his father when he was younger, which helped him develop a mental toughness that separated him from many of his counterparts. That was evident when he transferred to the University of South Florida and held down a night job during a difficult financial period for his mother, while still playing football and majoring in economics.
But it was McKenzie's message to Sanchez, which was delivered in a one-on-one meeting following the team session, that truly inspired both parties.
"It was a good experience to get with him, just to be able to talk to him," said McKenzie. "You could see it in his eyes that he's been through some stuff. We've all been through stuff in our lives, it just depends on how we bounce back. So my focus was to tell him that he's not the only one. I was just trying to reach out to him, to try to tell him my story and give him some good advice."
The young man got the message.
"Somebody right from my area playing in the NFL, that's awesome," said Sanchez. "Definitely makes me think that I could be there one day."
While personal motivation is key to achieving success, McKenzie acknowledged that it can't always be accomplished alone.
"For him to excel and do what he can do with the help of the Glazers and the other foundations is huge," said McKenzie. "He's a great kid, he has a great opportunity, and he's just a kid that you want to wrap your arms around and help. So now for the Glazers and these other organizations to actually do that and help him through these steps in life that he wants to make towards his goals is huge. I expect him to do great things with the opportunity."
From Iuculano's point of view, it's support from organizations like the Glazer Family Foundation that truly makes a difference in the lives of those less fortunate.
"When we can make a connection and create some awareness about some of the kids in the community and get someone involved like the Glazer family, these kids go down a completely different path than they normally would without that connection," she said.