CORONA, Calif. — On a field situated between Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, the sounds of football could faintly be heard.
No, it wasn't quite Friday night lights, but the pads were back on, the ball still set, and youth football back on for at least one program in California.
Winner Circle Athletics, a Corona-based youth training facility and charter school, became the first program in the state to kick off this fall. They created a new league this year in response to state guidelines that prevented high school and youth football to be played.
“Kids really didn’t have a place to go," said Jordan Campbell, owner of WCA. "Schools were shut down, parks were shut down, and the one thing that’s been consistent is Winner Circle Athletics.”
Since its founding in 2014, the facility has specialized in developing elite athletes, with its doors almost always open to those looking to take their skills to the next level.
However, in mid-March, as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, Campbell and his staff were forced to face a new reality.
“We shut down immediately," he said. "We stopped our school program in March and moved online.”
After a month, Campbell began to wonder if shutting down the facility was the right move for his players and their families.
“We had several cases in the program where kids were thinking suicide," he explained. "And it was kids who worked their butt off their whole life to get to this point, and to not have control of your own destiny anymore really started to shake kids up.”
The pandemic had already forced the postponement and cancellation of many football programs throughout the state. Dead periods for college recruiting were also extended, and several players even fled outside the state for the chance to compete.
With so much taken away from young players who often relied on football as a physical and emotional outlet, Campbell believed he had the ability to do something.
“I feel if you take the kids dreams away, a lot of these kids have nothing to work for," he said. "To be honest, a lot of these kids' dreams were to go to college and play sports.”
The motivation to provide updated film for his players was what prompted Campbell's youth football academy and high school training camp. The program featured a full 11-on-11 padded football league, giving kids the chance to both practice and compete this fall.
Footage from games and showcases has helped garner over 30 Division I scholarship offers, but more than that has provided what Campbell sees as a necessary outlet.
“We see the smiles, we see the impact daily," he said. "I know we’re doing the right thing.”
But not everyone is of that opinion.
By opening his facility against some county guidelines and state health recommendations, Campbell has incurred several fines and lawsuits. Though both were settled out of court, criticism continues to pour in on social media.
Despite the pushback, Campbell and his staff believe it's been worth it.
“At the end of the day, we changed a lot of kids' lives," he said. "No one on staff has been sick. No one has had coronavirus. It’s worth taking the heat for.”
For Winner Circle Athletics, the kickoff is more important now than perhaps ever before.