PHOTO: Chad Petterson teaches a lesson at the start of the Receiving Jesus Football Camp on Tuesday, June 18, 2019, at Litton Middle School in Nashville. / Photos by Rachael Long
By RACHAEL LONG
The gymnasium of Litton Middle School is filled with the sound of sneakers skidding on a basketball court, kids laughing and shouting, and the occasional screech of a coach’s whistle.
As dozens of East Nashvillian kids find seats along the half-closed bleachers of the school gym, Brentwood entrepreneur and father of three Chad Petterson begins talking about something unusual for this setting: The Bible.
The “lesson” portion of Petterson’s free flag football camp program, “Receiving Jesus Football Camps,” is short, roughly 10 minutes at the start of the hour-long program. But Petterson says it may be the only time the young people are exposed to the message, and he hopes they learn something from it.
Petterson said they keep the lessons short on purpose, so as to stay within the kids’ short attention spans. The lessons, like the name “Receiving Jesus,” are a play on words.
“We’re giving you a story or a scripture verse or something that you can either catch, you can receive, or you can drop and not receive,” Petterson said. “That’s kind of our first message, is having good hands or good soil for the word, or the seed, to be planted in…We try to weave the two together as best as we can.”
Petterson said the faith element is not too heavy, but personally, it’s important to him.
“We have young, impressionable kids,” Petterson said. “Maybe they’re getting it somewhere else, but if not, then we have the draw of a fun sport like football to get them there.”
Petterson moved with his wife, daughter, and two sons to Brentwood three and a half years ago from Connecticut. The family is full of athletes — Petterson himself having been a wide receiver at the University of Michigan.
He grew up in Flint, Michigan. Petterson says he was lucky to be raised in a two-parent household in a nice neighborhood. At the time, he said, Flint was rated the “worst city in America.”
“Everybody knows about the water crisis, but there are a lot of other issues there,” Petterson said.
His mother was an inner-city teacher and his father an inner-city therapist, so he saw firsthand the ways poverty can affect people’s lives.
“It had an impact on me, and I’ve always wanted to be able to do something to help folks that didn’t have the same opportunities that I had,” Petterson said. “My heart really goes out to children who are born into those situations.”
Just before they moved to Nashville, Petterson said the family was just getting ready to get a football program off the ground in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
“Bridgeport is another low-income community surrounded by the wealth of the suburbs,” Petterson said. “We moved down here and then kinda had to start over.”
Though he wasn’t sure where to start when it came to finding a church partner for the camps, Petterson said it all came together “in the strangest of ways.”
Someone contacted him about a listing he’d put up on the Facebook Marketplace for a rolling bookshelf cart.
“It happened to be a pastor of a church in East Nashville, said he needed it to put bibles on in his congregation,” Petterson recounted. “We started talking over the phone. Anyway, next thing we know, we’re partnered with them and running camps in East Nashville.”
Reaching new heights
Because of their love of both sports, the Petterson family didn’t stop at football. They’re heavily involved in the Brentwood lacrosse community and decided to bring the sport to the kids in East Nashville, as well.
Although it primarily involves the same group of kids as the football camp, the free lacrosse camp is called “Level Field Lacrosse.” The name was born out of the idea that the sport could help level the playing field for all kids, regardless of their backgrounds or financial capabilities.
“We feel like, once that field is level, that they’re going to be able to perform as well or better than any other kids,” Petterson said. “But if they don’t have the opportunity, then they’re never going to be able to compete.”
The family began the free camps last year, and Petterson said they didn’t expect how much the kids would enjoy lacrosse.
“We started with football, and the football is great… I love it… but it’s just been this unexpected surprise of how much the kids have loved lacrosse,” Petterson said.
When they started last summer, Petterson said he asked the kids, “How many of you have played lacrosse before?”
Of the 30-40 kids present, Petterson said three of four raised their hands.
“How many of you have even heard of lacrosse?” he tried again.
The same three or four hands went up.
But after last year’s camp ended, the kids enjoyed the sport so much that Petterson said they are now in the process of starting a club team called the “Nashville Heights Warriors.”
If you’re wondering where Nashville Heights is, it doesn’t exist.
Petterson said he feels strongly that words have power, the reason for his usage of word-play for each camp. The same is true for the future lacrosse club.
“That’s what we are renaming — for our purposes — the neighborhood they’re from, the Cayce Homes government housing where the average household income is $7,700 per year,” Petterson said. “We thought, let’s give kids the idea that they can rise to new heights…obviously ‘warriors’ has the connotation that they’re going to come out and be fighters.”
Because lacrosse is primarily based in the east coast, Petterson said the sport could also open doors to the world of higher education.
“There are all kinds of colleges that are starting lacrosse teams,” Petterson said. “With that comes lots of opportunities for scholarship, and so this could be a door for a kid from this neighborhood to be able to go to college.”
Petterson said they’ve established the name, the logo, and a large donation of equipment, including brand new gear donated by a lacrosse company.
“So we just have to figure out a way to pull it all together here,” Petterson said. “We don’t have a set timeframe for that except ASAP.”
The free camps took place in June with the last day being June 21. The first two hours of every day were spent at Litton Middle School for football and lacrosse, followed by a third hour of lacrosse at the Martha O’Bryan Center in Nashville.
Later in the summer, Petterson runs the same kind of camp in Brentwood. The Brentwood camp is also free, but Petterson said donations made by suburban families typically help put on the camps for free in East Nashville.
“You just come and play sports with us. We freely give our services to you and if you are able to freely give back to us, great,” Petterson said. “If not, no worries. Everybody’s in a different financial position.”
The camps in Brentwood will take place July 8-11 and walk-ins will be welcomed. The football camp will run from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and lacrosse will be from 1 to 3 p.m. The official location of the Brentwood camps is yet to be determined, but Petterson said they’re considering a central location like Civitan Park.
A new perspective
As if all those sports camps weren’t enough, Petterson says he’s working on a mission trip experience for Brentwood-area high school lacrosse players called “Lacrosse the Villages.”
The idea is to take the student athletes to Teupasenti, a small village in Honduras, and allow them to teach the game of lacrosse to the kids living in the village. They’ll also raise money to donate lacrosse equipment to the village so the kids can continue to play long after the trip ends.
“We also hope to allow kids from a very wealthy community like Brentwood to go down and experience what it looks like to live in true poverty and hopefully get a new perspective,” Petterson said.
The trip is tentatively planned for spring break next year and will be in partnership with the Children’s Rescue Mission in Teupasenti.