Game changer: Airman gives back, grows as mentor to high school football team

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Alexander W. Riedel
  • 36th Wing Public Affairs
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)

As the sun hangs in a warm glow over the Pacific island, a group of prospective Guam High School football players eagerly reach for a chilled bottle of water as they take a break from football drills at Andersen Air Force Base.

A few moments later, they are summoned back to the field and queue up to run several yards before reaching for a wide pass from across the field.

"Good catch!" compliments their coach with a high-five as he readies for the next throw.

For almost a month now, Senior Airman Presley Griffith, a 36th Mobility Response Squadron executive assistant, spends three evenings per week coaching free preseason conditioning training for prospective high school football players.

"I've played football since third grade and I realized how important practicing in the spring is to prepare and get ready (for the fall season)," Griffith said. "When I learned that students here did not have a training camp yet, I decided to help out. Now, students get to throw the ball on an actual football field and run through drills and movements together as a team in preparation for the upcoming season."

Growing up in Fouke, Arkansas, football was at the center of life for the former quarterback and continues to be a lifelong passion for the Airman. During his senior year, Griffith's commitment on the field earned him the chance to attend Football University's Top Gun High School Camp, an intense training event reserved for top players. He received pointers and mentorship from experienced coaches, former NFL players and was also scouted by Southern Arkansas University, which later offered him an opportunity to join their team after graduation.

The offer, however, placed Griffith in a bind. A battery of injuries suffered during the competitive high school season had taken a toll on the young student, making his decision to advance into an even more demanding level of the sport a difficult one.

If he continued his studies to play at the collegiate level, Griffith recalled, he and his family feared he'd risk his health and professional future.

"I remember first hearing that teams were interested in me. I was ecstatic and excited about being able to play at the next level," Griffith said. "But when it came time to decide, my mind was in the game, but my body wasn't. I knew I couldn't go to college and get beat up like I was in high school."

Another long-time childhood dream, joining the Air Force, quickly started to come into renewed focus for the athlete.

"I wanted to be in the military ever since I was a little kid," he recalled. "I realized that I could join the military and still pursue a coaching degree and the necessary certifications, all while serving my country."

His passion to assist young athletes is more than just game strategy and technical instruction, Griffith said. The students often look for role models and answers about life after high school -- turning coaching into mentoring.

"Being a young volunteer coach allows me to work on a very personal level with the players," he said. "I was just in their shoes a few years ago. I get to tell them about how important and valuable their time is right now, to give 100 percent effort and to also enjoy it every step of the way, because they are going to miss it later."

Unexpectedly, Griffith said Air force life offers an excellent opportunity to advance his coaching experience at different schools and pursue his education, on his way to meet his ultimate goal of becoming a high school history teacher and football coach.

"I realized how much coaches have helped me grow as a person," he said. "You learn a lot about discipline, values and mentorship. That is my goal in life, to be a high school football coach and to mentor young athletes.

"The students are the long-term goal," Griffith continued. "It's not about winning every game, but about getting better, fine-tuning your skill and getting the opportunity to keep playing at the next level. And we try to make this possible for the athletes here."

His assistance is also appreciated by Guam High School’s coach, who said he enjoys seeing the enthusiasm in students.

"Having Senior Airman Griffith out here, bringing his experience to a team, is something we're very happy to have," said Jacob Dowdell, the Guam High School coach. "It's all about keeping kids active and healthy. And it's a community effort. With Griffith leading this training, you can tell students respond to him. They anxiously await his arrival and are ready to work. It's a real pleasure having him here."

To be able to meet with the student athletes after work, Griffith manages a balancing act between work, taking distance education college classes and his wife, who is also expecting their first child.

During duty hours, Griffith currently assists the 36th MRS commander with any and all administrative needs. Whether it's processing performance reports, decorations or handling correspondence and appointments, he manages the organizational needs for his office.

While spending several hours conducting weekly coaching sessions requires careful planning, Griffith's leaders have been supportive of his efforts whenever possible, he said.

"Senior Airman Griffith has always expressed an interest in coaching football," said Tech. Sgt. Cheryl Turonis, the 36th Wing NCO in charge of the wing support staff and Griffith's former supervisor. "I am glad to see that he is pursuing his goal through volunteering with the Guam High School Football team."

In the near future, Griffith hopes to complete his volunteer coaching package, which would allow him to officially join the local high school's coaching team as an assistant.

"There are plenty of opportunities to help in the community," Griffith said. "You just have to go out and try. It's important to give 100 percent of your heart. It's going to take some time, but you're going to help and benefit kids in the future. Just know that they are going to look up to you and it's paramount to be an appropriate role model for them."

Until his next permanent change of station, Griffith plans to continue coaching, improving as a mentor and attending the local high school games.

However, he said there is one downside to being a football fan on a remote island in the Pacific: Watching live football broadcasts may turn into an unexpected challenge as games air with a 14-hour time difference from the East Coast. Griffith's joy for the game thus often keeps him up and in front of the TV at odd hours of the night, as he catches the latest developments in stadiums half a world away.

"My wife fully understands my love for the game," Griffith said. "She gets up with me at 4 a.m. on Sunday mornings to watch the games and understands how much it means to me."