Tahj Gary played football since he was 5 years old -- a kid who eats, thinks and sleeps football, literally. He wears his uniform when he does homework and sleeps with a football in his bed like a teddy bear.
"My mom signed me up for football, and I played it for the first year. I liked it. So I came back," Tahj said.
His room is decked out in the gear of his favorite NFL team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. He also likes former Steelers' running back Jerome Bettis. He even mentioned he wants to go to the University of Oregon, a school known for its high-octane offensive plays and snazzy uniforms. He loves playing football-themed video games like NCAA Football and Madden.
When you talk to Tahj, he's a young man of few words, but his talents on the football field do the talking for him. At one moment, he could be on the field receiving the handoff from the quarterback, barreling through the defensive line as he rumbles toward a touchdown. Another moment, he could line up as a safety, snatching the ball in the air from a wide receiver. Yes, he's so versatile he can play both offense and defense.
That's not bad for an 11-year-old who's about to enter the sixth grade.
Meet a phenom
Prep school football coach Ty McCard said Tahj did so well in the school's intramural program that coaches there thought he may be better served to move up a level.
"Quite frankly, he was so talented that the other coaches didn’t think they would be able to make a play with him on defense," he said.
A request was made by some of the intramural coaches to allow Tahj to play with the seventh-graders. That request made its way through the administration and finally to Tahj and his mother, who had to sign off on it.
McCard said the other players on the team don't treat Tahj any differently.
"They treat him just fine. They recognize his athletic ability," he said. "There's no animosity at all. They all realize that he's better than many of the seventh-graders out there."
Tahj said he doesn't mind playing with kids who are older or bigger than him.
"There's no pressure when you're going out there to play with the other kids. It's just making me play better," he said. "It's just an honor to be recognized."
With such a versatile player, there is the danger of coaches who may be out for their interests instead of those for the child. Diana Gowins, Tahj's mother, said high school coaches have come to watch her 11-year-old son play.
"A lot of the coaches, they would park their cars on the curbs and videotape Tahj from the curb or a little hideout space. And once they got the opportunity to come up to me or come to the stands, they would ask who was No. 32 -- Tahj's uniform number," she said. "They can't refer to him by his name because they know they should be scouting at such an early age."
Gowins said she's not worried about her son dealing with unscrupulous people.
"I'm not a parent that shields their kids from the outside, but I tell them that people can gravitate toward you for wrong reasons," she said.
Coaching him up
Gowins said her son's first coach saw firsthand how talented he was when he was a member of a parks-and-recreation league around Atlanta, Georgia.
"He tried to keep him on his team as long as he could because he knew Tahj was a great athlete," she said. "He tried to tell the park that Tahj was his godson in order to keep him on his team, but the park wasn't going for that story."
The following year, that coach put Tahj in the hands of former Sandtown Vikings coach Larry Bride, who he played with for five years. Bride said Tahj was a very advanced ballplayer for his age -- one whose skills reminded him of past and present NFL players such as Adrian Peterson or Emmitt Smith because Tahj's moves were so fluid and he had great agility at a young age.
"We worked on his agility, teaching him the game, getting him to understand that it's more than just carrying the football," he said. "We're trying to get him to be more of a student of the game -- the Xs and Os, teaching him about defenses, how to attack defenses when he's running the ball or blocking for someone else."
"Sometimes, we'd use him in big plays. Sometimes we used him as a decoy, so he has to have the same pace when we're using him as a decoy," he said.
Bride said some coaches would use incentives like video games or money to recruit a kid like Tahj to play football with them.
"There are the good recruiting practices -- meet the kids, meet the parents. And then you have the other part of recruiting that you never want to talk about, but it's there," he said.
Bride said it's very important that parents do their research with all of the things happening with youth sports to make sure your child is put in a great situation.
"Your gut feeling tells you about coaches. You want to make sure your coach has some knowledge and they've played the game, that they're certified," he said. "You want to support your coach. You want to interview your coach before you allow your child to play for that coach. You want to sit down and see what his plans are for your child. Is this a coach that just wants to win games? Is he going to take a 6-year-old and develop him?"
It runs in the family
Gowins said both of her children, Tahj and his twin-sister TaJiah, showed signs of being potential stars at a young age.
"They started playing T-ball at 3 or 4 years old. The coaches knew that both of them were very talented, very athletic, and there would be coaches that come to watch my kids play," she said. "They would sit in the stands. I didn't know they were there. The buzz was around the football field or baseball field, trying to find out who these kids were."
"I just wanted them to go out there and have some fun, find their niche and for some reason, Tahj found it at an early age," she said.
Maybe there was something in the genes. Gowins was a former track star preparing for the Sydney Olympics when she found out she was three months pregnant with twins. She said she was faced with a choice: to continue her training or take on a new endeavor: motherhood. She chose the latter.
"They both turned out to be little mini-mes, which I'm very proud of," she said.
"What I saw in Tahj at an early age, I saw that he was destined for greatness. I saw his athletic ability early on. It brought tears to my eyes because I gave up my career and God blessed me with a child that's athletic, very talented, smart and I don't have to push it on him.”
Despite her kids' athletic skills, Gowins said education comes first in her home.
"They both know when it comes to anything no matter what it is they want to do outside of school, they have to get their homework and study for tests," she said. "I made sure at an early age that before they played sports, that education came first. It's very funny with Tahj that he knew when practice started, he would always stare at the clock and I would try to get him to focus.
"It got to a point that Tahj would dress up in his football gear. He just had that adrenaline flowing after he did his homework. He knew Mom was not going to budge or go anywhere until his homework was done, so he would sit there while doing his homework with his uniform on."
Living your life through your child
As parents, there's no greater joy than watching your children succeed. Watching them play can bring back memories from your childhood of scoring that game-winning touchdown or hitting the last shot to win the basketball game. But are there pitfalls to that type of behavior?
"You have to be very careful with that because ultimately the child has to make the decision if they really want to participate and play, so you have to be very careful with pushing the kids in sports," Bride said.
Jim Taylor, an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco who specializes in the psychology of sports, business and parenting, says in The Power of Prime blog from Psychology Today that parents' zealousness for their children's athletic development can lead to problems later.
"By placing your children in practice and competitive situations in which they are overmatched, you may be inadvertently inhibiting, rather than facilitating, their interest, achievement, and enjoyment in their sport," he said.
Taylor also said your child could be "the next Olympic champion or multi-million dollar bonus baby," but that dream can cause them to lose perspective on sports' intrinsic value of fun, life lessons and life-long health.
"The odds of your children becoming great athletes are also infinitesimally small," Taylor says. "How many (Rafael) Nadals, (Michelle) Wies, and (Tom) Bradys emerge in any generation? I'm not saying that your children shouldn't dream big (if they don't aim for the sky, they won't even get to the top of the mountain), but that shouldn't be your focus as sports parents."
But often, problems do arise when the parents and coach don't see eye-to-eye about the child's athletic potential.
"There are a lot of parents out there who think their kid should be doing certain things on the field or on the court," Gowins said. "If they're not getting their particular way at this particular park or this particular school, they tend to want to remove their child from that field or that park or school and take them somewhere else where they feel like they may advance.
"I don't think you have to go to one park or one school to get your child recognized. I think the child's athletic ability will speak for himself. I think sometimes when parents get involved and overstep their boundaries and get involved in what the coaches are there to do -- teach their kids -- that sometimes it can be a little complicated," she said.
Bride said he's seen overbearing parents on the field, but those parents make most of the decisions for their child.
"Most parents along the way, if they are fortunate enough to get good coaches and (have) a great support cast, they will listen to that support cast," he said. "(There's) plenty of training, plenty of people around to educate parents and tell them, 'Hey, let's do this the right way."
Tahj recently took a baseline concussion test to measure his cognitive skills through a series of categories, including memory, reaction time and recognition. If he were injured, he could retake the baseline tests and his results could be compared to those before his injury to determine when he would be able to get back onto the field.
These tests, which were instituted in the NFL years ago, have now moved down to the youth football ranks as studies show young athletes are more susceptible to concussions because their brains are still developing.
In a September 2010 study published in Pediatrics magazine, emergency room visits for patients with concussions were analyzed. From 2001 to 2005, U.S. children between 8 and 19 years old made an estimated 502,000 emergency room visits for a concussion. Nearly half of those visits were for sport-related concussions, with the 8- to 13-year-old age group accounting for 40 percent of those.
Tahj and his mom said they're not worried about him getting injured, but his old coach said the risk of injuries is always a possibility.
"With any sport, any kid and any point in time, anything can happen," Bride said. "We don't pray for victories, but we pray for the kids to not be injured and try to teach them the proper fundamentals and techniques of the game."
Kalimba Edwards, Tahj's new coach on the Sandtown Vikings, played several years in the NFL. He knows too well the violent nature of the game. He is one of more than 1,800 former professional football players who are suing the NFL for concussions and health problems resulting from those injuries. He said he hopes to change youth football and put more emphasis on the basics of the game.
"I can teach them how to properly tackle someone and hopefully, I can diminish the chance of someone getting a head injury," he said. "I can control hitting and to some extent, what happens on the field."
Edwards said that's the reason he got into coaching youth football.
"I don't want to see them getting hurt. I saw that in the NFL. I’m a product of that era of football," he said.
Only a small percentage of kids realize their dream of playing in college or professionally in the NFL. And even then, one can't play football forever.
"It’s strange. Football parallels life more than anything," Edwards said. "You go down and bounce back up. You may not always make the big time. But it lays a foundation of toughness, mentally and physically."
Gowins said she would be fine if her son came up to her and said he didn't want to play football anymore. She said he has plenty of time to be whoever he wants to be.
"I know he wants to play professional ball, but his education comes first and he knows that," she said.
Bride, who recently accepted a job on the coaching staff at Westlake High School, also sees a bright future for his former pupil whether it's in football or something else.
"I would love to see him continue football, but ultimately as long as Tahj Gary grows up to be a productive young citizen, a great student first, a great son and be committed to helping the younger kids in the community that look up to him, that's a great start," Bride said. "If he's blessed to continue to play this game on each level, then that would be great as well."
As for Tahj, the 11-year-old says he doesn't know what he wants to do outside of football.
"I just want to be a regular kid," he said.