Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023 | 2 a.m.
The Canyon Springs High football team gathered at the crack of dawn for a recent team event. But instead of the players putting on their cleats and heading onto the field, they laced up their sneakers.
This morning, preparing for the upcoming season wasn’t a priority. Rather, it was preparing for life.
A group of about 60 players took off on foot from the stadium gates of their North Las Vegas school and down North 5th Street to the heart of the valley’s homeless services, where struggle and agony are dynamic.
The travels continued about one more block and the team arrived at Woodlawn Cemetery, where finality is still and quiet.
They were running through reality.
Coach Quincy Burts took his squad on the 8-mile round trip run July 29 to illustrate the harsh outcomes of bad decisions and urge the benefits of good ones.
“You’ve got three seconds, three seconds to make the right or wrong choice. Three seconds to be where you’re supposed to be,” he told the players during a breather at the cemetery. “Ninety percent of high school students that sit here right now probably weren’t where they were supposed to be.”
The tradition of the summer run goes back over a decade, to when Hunkie Cooper, currently a UNLV staffer and the man for whom the Canyon Springs field is named, was the Pioneers’ coach. It has continued with the coaches who succeeded him.
Burts is the third Canyon Springs head coach since Cooper’s tenure, and there was never a question that he would run at dawn with his team too.
Not every win is on the field, he stresses, and “today is a win.”
The players raced the sun to do at least the first leg of their run before it went from just warm to searing. The sun beat them, but not by much.
Aaron Hickman, a campus monitor at the school whose son is on the team, followed the runners in his truck and had plenty of bottles of water to distribute. His son, also named Aaron Hickman, was savvy enough to sport a wearable water bladder for the run.
The elder Hickman clearly loves his son, bragging about his 3.8 grade-point average and wearing a pendant with the initials they share.
But Hickman’s son needs to hear life lessons from someone who isn’t his dad, “even though I can give him everything.”
One of those lessons apparently was quickly learned. When the team took a breather for a snack, the younger Hickman instead gave his food to a homeless person they encountered on the streets.
“I know it’s hard to find food out there,” said the younger Hickman, a 14-year-old.
Long braids bounced off the incoming freshman quarterback’s shoulders as he ran past the industrial yards filled with heavy equipment, a
pungent-smelling asphalt plant, the elementary and middle school he attended, and the litter dammed up against fences.
It was about 6 a.m. when Aaron was among the first runners to reach The Shade Tree, a shelter for abused and homeless women and children. The streets were already stirring. Exhausted-looking men who weren’t leaning listlessly against walls walked with garbage bags of belongings. A young woman walked among them with a cooing infant in a stroller.
On the street side of the security fence that keeps The Shade Tree’s residents apart from intruders or their abusers, Burts told his players that they need to keep a cool head and never hit women or girls.
“You have sisters, aunties, grandmas,” he said. “Be appreciative. Everybody got it?”
“Yes, coach,” the players responded in unison.
Then they jogged to Woodlawn Cemetery, a final resting place owned by the city of Las Vegas.
People their age die. Their classmates die. Burts told them that last school year, three Canyon Springs students died.
“When you go home you should thank someone that takes care of you, because you’re able and willing to be here today,” he told the players. “It ain’t about what you don’t have, it’s about what you got. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have enough — if you didn’t have enough food on your table, if you didn’t have a place to be, if you weren’t able to wash up, eat when you want to, be in the air conditioning.”
He built to a crescendo.
“They can’t go anywhere,” he said, referring to the people in graves around them. “That’s where they’re at. That’s reality right there.”
Burts told his players to look out for each other, to get to school and to practice on time and to choose to excel when they’re there. Be brave. Be aware. Be grateful.
“Be thankful, be humble, but also live. Don’t be afraid to be successful,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to be like, ‘Hey man, I ain’t joining that gang.’ Don’t be afraid to tell somebody no because it’s the right thing to do.”
Nobody is too young to succeed, he said.
“Don’t hold back yourself. Everybody understand that?”
“Yes, coach,” the boys again said.