Pushing For Performance

When the last seconds ticked off the clock in final BCS Championship Game in Pasadena, California, the Florida State Seminoles completed their perfect 13-0 season, upending the efforts of Arkansas native Gus Malzahn and the SEC Champion Auburn Tigers. Like the fans on “The Plains of Auburn,” the FSU win likely disappointed many Arkansans putting their college loyalties aside to root on Malzahn and the Tigers.

But for the young men taking part in college football’s biggest annual game, their hard work and dedication goes far beyond any 100,000-seat stadium, college weight room or practice field. For many, it’s carried out during individual work sessions with coaches and trainers, hired to hone their skills to their peak. It’s an advantage, once reserved for some of the larger cities, but now available to Saline County student-athletes through Salt County Sports Performance.

“We’re working to help these players improve,” said co-owner and trainer Michael Richards. “We’re not coaching them; that’s not our job. We’re trying to improve their skills to help give them the best chance to possibly play beyond high school.” Richards co-owns and operates Salt County with former Arkansas Razorback J.J. Meadors.  The 1995 graduate chose Arkansas over Nebraska and is best remembered for a critical 4th quarter touchdown catch from quarterback Barry Lunney, Jr., beating No. 13 Alabama 20-19 at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.

Meadors catch is still disputed among college football fans some 18 years later, but in a 2011 interview with www.sec.com, he said, “People still ask me if I made the catch.  I tell them, ‘Never argue with a ref.’”

With that piece of Razorback lore now well in his rearview mirror, Meadors works as a speed and agility trainer, complimenting Michael Richards’ expertise in strength training.

“We really work well together as a Yin and Yang toward helping these kids understand what will happen if you work hard versus what will happen if you don’t,” Richards said. It’s a lesson Richards recalls learning the hard way during his time in high school at Benton. “I played sports in high school but made some poor choices while I was there and didn’t play in college.”

Richards studied kinesiology at UCA and decided he wanted to work with young athletes.  “I wanted to help steer them away from some of the decisions I made,” he said.

Forming Salt County Sports Performance two years ago, Richards and Meadors knew their respective experience would work toward helping the young student athletes, both boys and girls, develop their physical skills to compete at the highest level. However, it was a second, more critical lesson they hoped to instill in their young clients that would help long after the stadium lights dim and the real world sets in.

“All kids who come here think there going to the NFL or Major League Baseball,” Richards said. “We tell them, ‘That’s okay.’ They can think that, but in the meantime, we want them to make sure that the school where they attend is paying for their education. And no, we’re not talking about underwater basket weaving. “Our message to [the athletes] is, ‘Get a great degree, and make [the universities] pay for it,’” Richards said.

Meadors has worked with young athletes on their speed and agility for more than a decade. He says the young men, especially those hoping to play with the Razorbacks one day, must understand there are limited spots and opportunities on the Division I level.

“In the time I’ve been working with these young athletes, I worked with one, maybe two, who have the skills to play professionally. That’s not very many,” he said. “Those who may not have all five tools, if they work hard, can still find somewhere to play. It may not be at Arkansas, but it could be OBU, Rhodes College or maybe Henderson State or the University of Arkansas Monticello.”

And like Richards, Meadors says he can’t stress enough the importance of students focusing as much on their education as they do on their sport. “We don’t guarantee getting kids to the NFL, the NBA or Major League Baseball,” he said. “But I can tell you that 100 percent of them are going to have to eventually go out and find a job. It’s better if they can go on a scholarship where that education is paid for than it would be if they ended up $200,000 in debt. So for us and for the families we work with, we hope they see this as a real investment.”

Salt County Sports has seen significant success working with students at high schools within the county. They currently have a list estimated between 75 and 100 clients that include young athletes and adults hoping to stay in shape. While not officially endorsed by the Bryant School District or its athletic programs, a number of Hornet athletes have found their way to Meadors’ and Richards’ training. Right now, the duo is working with members of the girls softball team and the football team.

Hornet head football coach Paul Calley says he’s seen the dividends in many of his young players. “During our off-season, we do a lot of group work as a team,” he said. “I think it’s been extremely valuable to those players who’ve gotten that individual, one-on-one work with J.J. and Michael toward really helping them improve their games. I’ve seen players who I didn’t think would be able to make a great contribution to our team get involved with those guys,” he added. “After putting in the time and discipline, they made a big difference in their junior and senior seasons.”

Richards and Meadors agree that future is limitless for their young business. As more athletes grow, develop and move on to the college ranks, the reflection on their efforts can only be enhanced. “I see us as becoming the number one sports training facility in Arkansas,” Meadors said. “ Things are only going to get better and better.”

One player currently working with Salt County who’s helping thrust them into that spotlight is North Little Rock’s K.J. Hill. Meadors met the young man several years ago and was immediately taken with his work ethic and determination to play major college football. “The thing that has always impressed me is that he always wants to work to get better,” Meadors said. “Everything he’s achieved and everything he’s done has never left him satisfied. He always wants to do a little bit more and always wants to work a little bit harder.”

Richards recalls a game earlier this season where that attitude was displayed well on the field. “He caught a pass, and a guy jumped on his back,” he said. “K.J. threw him off and ran 50 yards for the score. He has that next gear you just don’t see very often.” Hill, who graduates in 2015, has interest from a number of major universities that include Arkansas, Oklahoma State and Alabama.

Remember Gus Malzahn and those Auburn Tigers? They want Hill to call their school home, too.

But wherever he or any of the dedicated student athletes end up taking their games, you can rest assured that they’ll likely be taking the lessons learned from Salt County along with them.