Pouring In

Photo by Nathan Sparks

No Athlete Left Behind provides young athletes with the support they need to lead fulfilling lives

It’s 4 p.m. on a Tuesday at Triple F Elite Training in Knoxville. The gym is quiet, outside of a few trainers getting their spaces ready for the students that will soon converge. High above the gym in one of the offices with windows overlooking the gym floor is Jennifer East, Director of Marketing at Triple F. She catches up on emails until she hears the ring of the front doorbell, signaling someone has entered the building. She pulls her head up from her work. Another ring goes off. Then another. Then so many it’s hard to decipher them as individual rings. 

Photo by Nathan Sparks

Students arrive from across the region, shaking off their school days and preparing for a workout with their trainers. The music ramps up in the gym below.

Amidst the hubbub is a quiet program called No Athlete Left Behind, a 501(c)3 nonprofit designed to support athletes without the means necessary to attend athletic training on their own. But you would never know it existed by watching a training. The NALB athletes are simply part of the facility’s membership, something the organization’s leaders felt strongly about when it formed early last year.

Jenn, who serves in an advisory role with NALB, and worked for years at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, brought her expertise to the table, knowing how critical it is for youth to have the support they need to lead healthy lives. “Whether it be health care or home life situation, kids need a solid foundation of support. So many children are lucky to have that, but so many kids aren’t,” Jenn says, adding later. “It has been incredible to serve in a different way for families.”

An NFL Founding

NALB is the brainchild of former Vol and former NFL tight end Lee Smith. Lee found ways post-football career to make a positive influence on youth, knowing first hand how challenging some youth have it. 

“My father was a pretty vicious alcoholic at the end of his life,” Lee says. “He was also a pro football player…While he was playing, he was my hero, the man who lived up to all the things that fathers are supposed to be. I’m very thankful for the first 10 years of my life and the father I had.” But things after that weren’t easy for his family. Eventually, after Lee started playing football, he found men who set an example in work-life balance. “It fired me up to watch men operate that way.” 

Photo by Nathan Sparks

When Lee opened Triple F in Knoxville, he wanted to ensure that those without the means to afford athletic training could benefit from the space and program. “This can change their life,” Lee says. “I wanted to make sure that we are on the frontlines to serve them in any way we could, regardless of whether or not they can pay.”

The organization serves athletes in just about any sport, including rowing, soccer, baseball, golf, football, and basketball. The athletes come to NALB from across East Tennessee. And while many come from challenging circumstances, that’s not always the case. “Some of these kids have wonderful parents that just can’t provide training for them,” Jenn says.

Coaches reach out to Lee about a student who might a good fit for NALB. Or athletes learn about the program from a friend. It all boils down to the athlete’s family telling their story. Then the NALB team determines through that story, understanding their circumstances, and speaking to coaches if a student is eligible.

It Takes a Village

Current NALB member Jaheim started playing football as a third grader. This year, he’s a senior, a running back for his high school’s football team. After getting injured in a game, Lee and the NALB team stepped in and offered to help get Jah back on his feet.

With mom, Shereka, working hard to provide for her six kids, Jah found added support from NALB. In addition to training, the team is helping him with other life skills a teenager needs, like how to open a bank account, get a driver’s license, and manage finances. And it’s making an impact. Shereka says her son has always been a good kid, but she’s proud of the work he has put in.

“A lot of the kids talk to Mr. Lee about school or sports, and he lets them make their own decision, but he gives them the mature advice that they need,” Shereka says. “I’ve noticed that as my son’s been going there he’s been having a lot more mature conversations…I can tell the maturity since he’s been in the program.”

Photo by Nathan Sparks

For Jah, it’s made an impact knowing Lee went through a challenging life as a youth. “He’s already been through it,” Jah says. “So he always knows exactly what to do.”

Jah will head off to Purdue University in the fall to play football. And while he doesn’t know just yet what his field of study will be, he’s excited for what’s to come.

In another part of town is Bayden, a high school freshman who started playing baseball when he was five, eventually joining a travel program. His mom, Courtney, calls out her “village” for helping her make his baseball dreams happen. But when Bayden learned about Triple F, a place that could help him reach his goal of playing Division 1 baseball, Courtney knew it wasn’t something they could add.

At NALB’s request, she shared her story, which would eventually lead her to NALB Executive Director Nate Hoffmeister, who is also one of the key trainers. Ironically, Nate knew the family already. That evening, Courtney got a call that Bayden was accepted into the program. 

“They have been such a blessing on so many levels,” Courtney says. “From the standpoint of the athletic level, they push him and make him work hard for what he wants. And they know how to do it the right way. But on the spiritual level and the mentor level, it goes far beyond what I could ever ask for.” 

More to Training

For so many athletes, being on a sports team or part of a training program is about so much more than exercising. It’s about learning good nutrition, camaraderie, discipline, respect, and time management. Trainers host classes every day that incorporate the NALB students.

But it’s a two-pronged approach, Nate says. They support them outside of the gym, as well, “pouring into them” so they feel supported. They make sure the athletes know about the college application process, offer weekly Bible study, bring them to community events, and participate in service projects with them. The fridge in the Triple F player’s lounge is always stocked with meals to go, and if an NALB student needs transportation to training, the program steps in.

The reality, Jenn says, is that not all of these students will get the opportunity to go to college or be pro athletes, “but let’s teach them to be good husbands. Let’s teach them to be good fathers. Let’s teach them what it means to get up every day and be a good worker and good employee.”

“If we can get access to these kids,” Nate says, “then we essentially take them under our wing 100 percent and try to do life with them.”

A Big Year Ahead

With 43 athletes right now, NALB can support upwards of 50, though Lee says someday he would love to be able to support more. 

“I want to make sure that all these kids out there that have been failed by people or have been failed by circumstances or failed by poverty, I want them to know that it might feel like athletics is the only thing you have, but in all reality, athletics is just the platform and the foundation that you’ve been given that allows you to do so much more,” Lee says. “I want to show them how to do that. And we could not be more excited about it around here and fired up.”

To learn more about No Athlete Left Behind and how to become involved in upcoming fundraisers, visit noathlete.org.   

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