Growing up in Southern California, John Ballantine’s active, high energy childhood consisted of playing neighborhood pickup sports all day with his friends. “Sometimes you’d come in for lunch and sometimes you didn’t come home until dinner,” he says. “It was typical to play three or four different sports in one day – football, basketball, baseball, swimming. The important thing was to be outside running around having fun with your friends,” he says.
John went on to compete in baseball, football, wrestling, and golf through high school, and the experience left him with more than a sense of physical fitness. “I really attribute much of my success, self-confidence, and tenacity to the experiences that I had related to youth sports.”
One aspect of youth sports that he valued was the unqualified support of his parents. “They gave us a lot of flexibility to go out and try things, whether it was a new sport, swimming, going to the beach or biking.” Money didn’t play a role in playing sports, so as a parent himself now, he’s alarmed to see financial concerns preventing many children from playing sports in today’s world. “Our schools have historically provided kids from all walks of life with opportunities to stay active. But we’re seeing funding shortages and cuts to extracurricular athletic programs at an unprecedented scale, which means today’s kids are forced to pursue sports outside the public schools in a “pay to play” environment, which is cost-prohibitive for many families.”
John stated that the research supporting kids in sports is overwhelming. “Kids involved in after-school sports programs have better social skills, better academic performance, and higher levels of physical activity later in life. Athletics also has the potential to reverse alarming trends in teenage pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, and underage drug use. The last academic year (2009-2010) saw over $2 billion eliminated from after-school sports programs in public schools around this country.”
But it’s not only money that keeps kids today from enjoying sports as much as he did, he believes. “There are families and young athletes all across the country making decisions to allow their kid to specialize in only one sport at a time because of several different factors,” he says. “There is now a competitive nature of sports in general, from the major league franchises down to the college and high school, and club level. Today in many cities across the country, if you are not playing certain sports at the club level, your odds of playing on a high school team can become significantly reduced.”
And anything that stands between kids and the opportunity to participate in sports is a problem, Ballantine believes. He’s keenly aware of the myriad life skills that his own background in sports helped him to develop. “My first organized sporting experience happened when I was eight years old in Little League baseball. The experience was incredibly positive and set the tone for my next 10 years of organized sports. The coach taught us in that first season that you play as a team. It’s not an individual sport. You respect the officials. You play for the love of the sport and you maintain good sportsmanship. In hindsight, these were amazing life lessons.”
These positive sports experiences instilled in John the skills and values that eventually enabled him to start Trusted Sports
, a social enterprise with a mission “to inspire kids to thrive in life through sports by providing resources that get and keep kids in the game.”
It was his own children’s early experience with youth sports that helped him identify the need. John and his wife, Tara, have two children, and a few years ago both wanted to sign up for baseball – T-ball in the case of his then five-year-old daughter and Little League for his 8-year-old son. As often happens when children start a new sport, the parents were asked to help out. John instinctively turned to the Internet to find resources that could augment his coaching skills, and he was disappointed to find very little helpful information aimed at parents and other volunteer coaches who wanted to become involved with youth sports. Additionally, he came across some alarming statistics.
“As I started doing more research, I discovered some negative and challenging trends that are happening within youth sports,” he says. For example, he learned that 62% of kids ages 9-13 do not participate in any organized physical activity during non-school hours. 75% of these kids don’t play because they can’t afford registration fees and gear. “You take that along with the statistic that 70% of kids exit youth sports at age 13 and you really have some pretty significant problems,” he says. "Clinical studies show that once you exit youth sports, you immediately have more kids in trouble with substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, gang violence, mental health issues, and childhood obesity, which is rapidly becoming a national epidemic.”
This growing awareness inspired the technology entrepreneur to develop Trusted Sports. He wanted to see more children start with and continue organized sports, and he wanted to ensure that parents and other adults had the resources they needed to foster this interest in children. One of John’s long-term goals is to make Trusted Sports the single go-to website for athletes, parents, and coaches needing best-practices information on youth sports or coaching.
“The challenge is that the unlimited sports opportunities that existed when I was a kid are now a challenge because of the “pay to play” environment. We’re seeing dramatic budget cuts in school districts across the country and as a result, everything from elementary school sports programs up through high school are being affected.”
Fortuitously, at this same time in his life, an old friend of John’s co-authored a book: “The Rudy In You." The book refers to Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, whose story of overcoming personal and physical hurdles to play football for Notre Dame was portrayed in the film “Rudy.”
“It was a timely book for me to read because I was seeing all of the challenges within youth sports and there was just some fascinating content in the book that convinced me that youth sports was worth saving,” John recollects. He urged his 9-year-old son to read the book as well, and the two consequently had “an incredible conversation about what it means to be part of a team, practicing good sportsmanship, honoring the referee, and all of the things that are sometimes difficult to teach at the youth level.”
So impressed was John with the book that he contacted Rudy Ruettiger directly. Their subsequent meeting resulted in John working with the Rudy Foundation to help develop the College Rudy Awards program
, intended to recognize the most inspirational player in Division One college football.
“We measure these kids not by the size of their stats, but by the size of their hearts,” Ballantine explains. “In the first year, 2007, we had 26 coaches nominating players from across the country and the stories were incredibly inspirational. That first year’s winner was a gentleman by the name of Terry Clayton, a senior at the University of Kentucky. At age five, he had chicken pox and a high fever which resulted in deafness. But he continued through all levels of youth sports including the college level, and the storyline behind it all was how Terry inspired his coaches, his teammates, his university, and the community. And it was a very powerful moment in terms of the opportunity that exists to recognize these amazing athletes. The next year we had 56 nominees, and now after only four years, it’s a program that’s is firmly integrated into Division One college football.”
As John observed the extremely positive effects of the College Rudy Awards, he understood the importance of extending the model to the high school level. The goal was to use the inspirational award concept not only to recognize those who were already in college and on a path to success, but to help youth get to college who might not otherwise have the means to achieve that goal. Trusted Sports Foundation
was born, and is now in its third year of granting scholarships for the High School Rudy Awards
“The idea of creating that award was that instead of 120 Division One schools, we would actually be going out to 16,000 high schools across the country that play football,” he explains. “We believed in the inspirational power of sharing stories across the country about kids who are overcoming great odds to stay in the game.
They created a selection committee included people like [NFL player] Drew Bledsoe, four-time Pro Bowler; Shaun Alexander, MVP from the Seattle Seahawks; Andrea Kremer, NFL sideline reporter and "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" correspondent; Jenn Brown, who does College Game Day; Jim Mora, who is a former coach of the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints; and Leigh Anne Tuohy, the mother depicted in "The Blind Side.”
For the award, Trusted Sports Foundation created a $25,000 college scholarship, with $10,000 going to the first place winner and the remainder to two runners-up. “The first year, we had over 300 nominees from all across the country,” John says. “We heard stories of everything from kids overcoming life-threatening illnesses to disabilities to broken families to homelessness to foster homes. Yet the common thread in every story was that these kids stayed in the game.”
The first winner of the High School Rudy Award was Calob Leindecker (right) from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "Caleb’s story was that his passion was to play college football. He started offense and defense on the national championship high school team. One day he got a callfrom his friends needing help as they were stuck in the mud on the levy, and he went out to help. In the process of helping, things went wrong and Caleb tragically ended up losing his leg that day. What was really amazing is that within 30 days, Caleb had made a decision and was determined to get back on the football field. It took 13 surgeries and hundreds of hours of therapy, but he came back as the senior team captain and placeholder for his team."
Another nominee was Kyle Weafer
(below), a boy with severe autism who announced when he was 16 years old that he wanted to play football. “That began an amazing journey for Kyle as he joined the football team and never missed a practice or a workout, despite the incredible discomfort the pads and helmets caused him. The crowds would yell his name when he got into the game,” John says. “His story moved not only a team but an entire community. When he was announced as a semi-finalist for our program, Kyle's story was recognized by the Kansas City Chiefs, which led to Kyle being honored at the NFL’s prestigious 101 Awards, which recognizes the NFL’s MVPs and Coaches of the Year. Len Dawson, the Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Fame Quarterback, did a keynote speech with a 30-foot screen as the backdrop with Kyle’s picture on it, and told Kyle’s story in front of the audience. Kyle was there with his father and stood up to an ovation in front of 900 attendees."
The High School Rudy Awards program, which attracted a staggering 1,500 people to its first awards banquet, has continued to grow in popularity in its second year. Trusted Sports established partnerships with CBS Sports, ESPN, and Yahoo Sports, which brought a tremendous amount of media attention. With the activation of Facebook, millions more became engaged, and more than 5 million fans have voted for their favorite Rudy Award nominee in the program's first two years of existence.
As the high school awards program enters its third year, John and his team at Trusted Sports are focused on increasing awareness of their program – not only because it can help the athletes who benefit from the scholarships, but also because it has so much to teach young people everywhere who play sports at any level.
“These are life stories that are just great examples to share across the country about young people who have persevered in life and really shouldn’t be succeeding in sports, but somehow they’ve stayed in the game. The sheer determination and perseverance that these kids represent every day is very inspirational and it’s a powerful learning tool for all kids.”
While his awards programs grow, his company seeks likeminded individuals and partners to augment their efforts. The discovery that first motivated John when he started coaching his children’s sports teams continues to drive the vision for the foundation.
Along with managing the awards and their accompanying scholarships, Trusted Sports Foundation is also committed to building a national platform to connect donors with youth sports organizations and school districts in need of funds, all with the continued goal of making team sports accessible to all young people.
What’s next? Coming up in August 2011 for Trusted Sports is the launch of the Inspirational Soccer Awards led by Chairman Steve Sampson, the former U.S. National Soccer Coach. “What’s great about the soccer awards is that soccer is a larger sport. It’s both global and gender-neutral, so through these awards we will be able to capture great stories about girls in addition to boys along with stories from countries around the world.”
Soccer is just one way that John and his team at Trusted Sports hope to expand their reach. “We continue to work to extend globally. Our mission will be complete when we've been able to find a way to get every kid that wants to get in the game, an opportunity to play,” he says.
Like the NFL players on the Insightful Player™ team, John Ballantine has used life experiences – both his own and those he’s learned about from coaches and teammates – to develop an inspirational focus that serves as a model for contributing to the world and boosting the potential of every young person. Insightful Player™, a bold movement of hope committed to lifting the spirit of the human race, is intended to demonstrate the immense power of the human spirit – as embodied by athletes and those who work with them.
2010 High School Football Rudy Award Winner, Chance Anthony: