September 7, 2017 | Community Spotlight | Main Street Guymon’s Football Families | By Melyn Johnson, Main Street Guymon Oklahoma's Main Street Guymon Director Melyn Johnson found more than just an innovative way to engage nearby college students in Main Street activities. The Football Family program she created enriches the lives of students and community members, building relationships that will last a lifetime.
Main Street Guymon
Director Melyn Johnson became friends with Neptune Joseph, a student and football player at the nearby Oklahoma Panhandle State University (OPSU), one day at a basketball game. Soon Neptune was attending church with Melyn and was included in all family dinners and activities. Neptune now even calls Melyn “Mom.” Neptune’s family lives in Miami, Florida, 26 hours from Goodwell, Oklahoma, where OPSU is located. (Goodwell, the next town over from Guymon, has a population of just 1,000.)
After a conversation with Neptune and two other OPSU football players, the Football Families program
came into being. Three primary objectives came out in the planning. First, Main Street would increase involvement and volunteers from the community and from the university. For the university, they would gain increased attendance at the university home football games. For the players, it would bring them support. It is always a priority for Main Street to work with the university and it is good when the school has a higher student rate.
“It means a lot to know you have someone up in the stands there just for you,” said OPSU football player Neptune Joseph.
The first year the program was limited to 25 football players who did not have family coming to the games. Because each team member is allowed to list four people—family and friends—to get into the game free, we based the Football Family on no more than four members.
It was easy to find 25 families for the players. We asked OPSU alumni, sports fans, those who like kids, and those who enjoy taking part in community activities. Neptune, a team captain, then choose 25 players who didn’t have family nearby, and those who had a good attitude, showed integrity and good character.
The first Football Family activity was a pot luck supper held at the park across the street from campus. Two long tables were completely packed with food. The players then were introduced to their football family. The coaches, players, and families had a fun evening of eating and conversation.
Almost 100 people volunteered and showed their support for the athletes. This brought them in to the Main Street office, some of them then joined other projects. The 25 players all volunteered at Main Street Guymon events or partner events during the year. OPSU players Nate Leota and Neptune Joseph take a selfie with Nate's Football Family Mom, Missy Cartwright, while volunteering at a Main Street Guymon 5K run event.
“I never went to the games before,” said Missy Cartwright, “but with someone to cheer for, it was fun to go.” And it helped that her family of four didn’t have to pay admission.
The Cartwrights were the football family for Nate Leota, a senior from eight hours away in Killeen, Texas. The Cartwrights had a son in fourth grade and a daughter in kindergarten. The Cartwrights had Nate and his friends over for Nate’s birthday supper.
At Nate’s last home football game, the Senior Game, his biological family (mother, father, sister, and brother) attended. They stayed with his Football Family. Then after the game the Football Family had everyone over for a cook out. Cartwright Football Family dinner with Nate and friends.
After football season, Nate went to the Texhoma Elementary school and ate lunch in the cafeteria with the fourth grader. After lunch, this 250-pound defensive player of Samoan descent went out and played basketball at recess with the kids. Then he joined the class and made a lava lamp with the kids. Yes, he was sitting in the little elementary chair, making his Football Family brother very happy.
Nate attended church on Mother’s Day with his Football Family.
“It was great to have a connection in the community so the kids had someone nearby in case they needed them,” said Jada Breeden, a member of an OPSU Legacy Family, who was the Football Family Mom to a player from Australia.
Football Family adults range in age from 70 to 30, plus all ages of children, and includes males and females who are single, married, and widowed (one being the first female Mayor of Guymon). The football players are freshman, sophomore, juniors, and seniors, starters and red-shirts, and hailed from Australia, Florida, south Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arizona, and more, the first year. Players and families are brown, black, and white.
Each Football Family did differently with their players. The players went to church Super Bowl parties with their families. They helped their Football Family children hunt for Easter eggs. They attended their Football Family sibling’s football and baseball and basketball games. They had someone asking about their grades and checking on them. Neptune helped with the junior high summer football camp with his Football Family.
Nate’s Football Family Dad is a football coach in the neighboring town and a whole carload of football players went to one of his games. They went for the Dad, but the high school players loved that the college guys were there, too. Football Family members proudly cheer on the OPSU Aggies.
“Main Street Guymon/OPSU Football Families has been a win-win program,” says Donna Riffel who attended her first OPSU football game after becoming a Football Family Mom. “It has connected people, ideas and the communities to the university in a very one-on-one setting. What a great way to give students that are far from home a little bit of ‘family’ and opportunities to do things off-campus. Connecting alumni and non-alumni citizens to the university through a great sports interest that became more. I have enjoyed meeting and getting to know the coaching staff as well as the players. The sharing of ideas, cultures, and mentoring opportunities are endless. I look forward to being involved for this second year.”
Most families reflect Riffel’s thoughts and are excited about entering the second year. This year we have more families and more players—a game night and pot luck for those on campus during the summer that was a riot. If you’re someone who enjoys having fun, then the Football Family program seems to draw you.
“Viewing the program from the outside,” says Justine Gaskamp, wife of the OPSU Head Football Coach. “I have noticed a twofold effect on some of our players. During a Football Families Potluck Game Night this summer, a few little league baseball players accompanied a mother who was participating in the event as a host. An impromptu game of musical chairs had college kids dancing around and thoroughly enjoying the company of their younger friends. I overheard one of our Aggies asking a little leaguer when his next game was, and I am certain that he made plans to go and support his new little brother. Not only have our Aggies gained a caring and supportive group of adults to serve as a family away from home, but the college kids have enjoyed mentoring and making lifelong friends with some of the community’s youth, and have learned how to pay it forward and be a blessing in someone else’s life. It’s a great thing to witness!”
“I don’t have kids myself,” says Lisa Johnson who is Neptune’s Football Family sister, “but it is my favorite part to see the youngsters finding friendships with these players. They obviously look up to them and, I think, the college guys know that and learn what it is like to be watched and the importance of being a good example. They enjoy talking to the adults and being brought food and games but it is the kids that really bring out the fun and playfulness in the football players.”
“I know my family has grown by a few big defensive players and a receiver or two and they will forever be family. So many of the Panhandle students stay around the area when it comes time to find a job and the networking that is done in this program alone, not to mention other Main Street Guymon programs as well, is rewarding in many ways. Employers feel at ease when hiring a graduate who has taken part in these programs. I just hope my family’s next football player knows what all birthday parties, cookouts, etc. he is getting himself into!”
Main Street Guymon has a saying, “Building relationships, one handshake at a time.” Football Families is all about relationships.
All photos courtesy of the author.About the author: Main Street Guymon (Okla.) Director Melyn Johnson has been bestowed with numerous state, regional and national awards including OPSU Hall of Fame, Girl Scouts Woman of Distinction Award, and Foreign Exchange Student Program Most Valuation Local Coordinator in the U.S. Melyn places special emphasis on programs of inclusivity such as youth mentoring programs, an African festival, Hispanic Fiesta, youth volunteer and senior citizen programs.