FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Football lifted Darren Woodson to the highest of athletic heights. During a 13-year NFL career he became a five-time Pro Bowl selection, a three time All-Pro selection and won three Super Bowl Championship rings, all as a safety with the Dallas Cowboys.
After ending his playing career in 2004 as the Cowboys' all-time leading tackler, Woodson joined ESPN as an NFL analyst in 2005 and makes appearances on both NFL Live and SportsCenter during the football season. He had only one appearance scheduled Monday morning, and it was at the Lee County Sports Complex in the starring role of a father of a young and possibly budding baseball prospect.
"I'm just a dad," Woodson said with a laugh after being asked if he was on hand to do some coaching. "I bring water to the dugout every once in awhile, that's my job. Things have changed in my life."
Woodson, who calls Dallas home, is in Southwest Florida this week supporting his son, Jaden Woodson, and Jaden's teammates on the Dallas Tigers-Hernandez 12u team. The Tigers and 15 other teams are here for the 2nd annual 12u Perfect Game BCS Finals tournament which began Monday and concludes on Friday.
The teams came from Texas, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Puerto Rico. Games are being played on the regulation softball fields at the Lee County Sports Complex, with the four-team playoffs slated for Friday morning.
The 12u competition offers a stark contrast to the 80-team 17u PG BCS Finals which is also being played this week at MLB spring training fields sprinkled around Fort Myers. The players on the 17u rosters are some of the top incoming high school seniors in the country while most of the 12u guys are just entering middle school.
"Our older groups do a lot of the Perfect Game tournaments and have had nothing but great things to report back in Texas or Dallas," Dallas Tigers-Hernandez head coach Chad Polk said after conducting a bunting drill before his team's tournament-opener Monday morning. "This is just a natural fit for us to attend this tournament in a great baseball area. We just look for good games -- we're not trying to go win national championships, we're just always looking for good games to be played every week."
At this level, it's all about teaching and encouraging development for the coaches, and all about learning and continuing to develop for the players. An event like the 12u PG BCS Finals puts these youngsters in an ideal environment on the development end -- a much better situation than can be found at local weekend tournaments.
"They've got to learn the (entire) game because they may not be a third baseman when they're playing in college or high school; they may not be the best pitcher that they are now," Polk said. "Somebody may develop and in high school all of a sudden it just clicks and the light bulb comes on. It's just like pro ball -- that's why they have the minor leagues. It's for development and we view this the same way as that, and that approach gets a lot of kids a lot of opportunities."
The Tigers-Hernandez 12u does travel quite a bit to uncover those opportunities. In Darren Woodson's mind, just being part of a team and an organization like the Dallas Tigers can be very beneficial not only to his son and his Tigers' teammates, but to all the 11- and 12-year-olds that are here this week.
"It keeps them in a structured situation," Woodson said. "It keeps them off the street and off the X-Box games, and it's a great bonding experience. My entire life has been centered around sports, and coming from the inner city I understand why my mother put me in sports at a young age -- to keep me busy and cultivate leadership skills.
"That's what you see with these teams at Perfect Game (tournaments), that their parents have put them in a situation where these kids can grow as individuals and grow into leadership roles."
Polk played collegiately at Baylor University and also spent one year (1998) in the minor leagues as part of the Toronto Blue Jays organization. Now he's working with kids who might still be learning the game at the most basic of levels. He may be approaching a young player who has never bunted before; they may know nothing about proper base-running technique or angles playing third base.
"How to turn two, feed-and-follows -- the list goes on and on but you have to be very explicit when you're instructing a younger player versus a 17- or 18-year-old when it's more about situational talk," Polk said. "But I enjoy the younger age groups because they're just little sponges.
"It's very different than teaching a 17-year-old because there are things that you assume they already or know. With the younger kids it's an opportunity to improve yourself as an instructor because you've got to tell them every little detail."
The competition side of it is important, too, of course. The Dallas Tigers-Hernandez -- who actually call Coppell, Texas, home -- rallied for five runs in the bottom of the sixth inning to escape the RBF Tigers out of Ringgold, Ga., 7-6, in their tournament-opener Monday. Preston King (2019, Argyle, Texas) was 3-for-4 with two RBI and Jaden Woodson (2019, Plano, Texas) was 2-for-2 with a double and two RBI to lead the Tigers-Hernandez.
"We get to travel and we get to see a lot of different teams, a lot of different organizations from around the country," Darren Woodson said. "Perfect Game (12u BCS Finals) is one of those tournaments where we're going to see a lot of teams that we've never seen before, and we get to know them just walking around the hotel. That's the fun about it, is the experience, and that's what makes it special."
It can be a learning experience on life in general, just not in baseball. It's about making friendships and forming relationships on off the field.
"This is more than just baseball; there's a lot more going on in the lives of these 11- and 12-year-old kids than just baseball," Polk said. "When you put them in situations where they've got be teammates and they're on the road with a group of guys and they've got to get along, they have to figure that out.
"This is not unique to baseball," he concluded. "There is more going on in these pressure situations ... and that's what you want your kids to feel. They want to learn to deal with that anxiety and learn how to deal with those nerves, and this is a great experience because by the time they're in high school and college they've dealt with a hundred times ... and it's not overwhelming."
Each of the 12 teams played two pool games Monday and will wrap up their first set of pool-play games on Tuesday. The pools will be realigned and another set of three games will follow on Wednesday and Thursday. A 12u PG BCS Finals Skills Competition is scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Lee County Complex.