When Aaron Sutton decided to take several Southern University Lab players on a college football camp tour this summer, he wanted to make sure that some of the experience was educational.
“What we try to do is make sure the kids are enlightened,” said Sutton, Southern Lab’s male athletic director and an assistant football coach.
“These opportunities, we don’t take them for granted.”
That’s why that between stops at Georgia and Alabama camps earlier this month, the 15-passenger van carrying Sutton and seven players veered southwest to Selma, Ala., where the youngsters received a powerful, first-hand history lesson.
Southern Lab players Chris Allen, Damone Clark, Shannon Foreman, Brian Johnson, Evan Johnson, Markus Martin and Cameron Williams walked across the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge and walked through the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge was the site of the March 7, 1965, civil rights march that became known as “Bloody Sunday” when state troopers attacked protesters with clubs and tear gas as they attempted to march to Montgomery to demand equal voting rights.
Imagery of the brutal attack created outrage around the country, which generated the public support needed to pass the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law five months later and became a landmark piece of civil rights legislation.
Many of the players were aware of what happened in Selma and saw the recent film based on those events, but actually walking across the bridge and through the museum was an experience Sutton described as “chilling.”
“I wanted to show the kids the value of not accepting ‘I can’t’ as an option,” Sutton said. “Just a short time ago, faces like theirs were not allowed to attend the great universities we went to visit.”
On this summer camp tour, Southern Lab players have been to LSU, Tulane, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and Colorado, while also making stops to check out Oklahoma and Kansas campuses.
The Southern Lab player generating the most recruiting buzz is 4-star linebacker Chris Allen, who holds scholarship offers from Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Texas and Texas A&M, among others.
But the tour has resulted in other players getting serious looks, too. Clark — a class of 2018 linebacker — picked up offers from Arkansas, Kansas and Colorado within the last month, and other teammates also earned offers, like the one 2019 running back Tyrion Davis got from Colorado.
Last December, Southern Lab — which shares a campus in Baton Rouge, La., with Southern University — finished the football season in glory, routing St. Mary 36-2 in the Division IV championship game to earn the school its first state title since 1996.
“It’s been great,” Allen said of traveling around with teammates this summer. “It’s like a team bonding thing. It builds chemistry between us.
“All these cats are going D-I.”
But more than anything, Sutton hopes the players who joined him on the summer tour learned that life is much bigger than sports.
“A lot of the kids saw the (Selma) movie, but being able to experience actually going there, you’re able to put a physical touch with the visual,” Sutton said. “It was a life-changing experience for some of the kids.
“It’s good to see where kids are able to take an experience like that and cherish it in their heart.”