Bigger than sports: Cardinals donate field, host camp at Mesquite High

Former NFL players Rick Cunningham (left) and Ben Patrick were happy to be part of the Arizona Cardinals Kids’ Camp, where participants learned not only skills but life lessons. (Photo by Harrison Zhang/Cronkite News)

GILBERT – Sports at their purest are about bringing together people and their community, rather than compiling a certain amount of wins. One magical day, and one new field, helped remind a Valley neighborhood of just that.

Mesquite High School had the chance to help the community when the Arizona Cardinals chose the Gilbert school for a program where the professional team donated a new football field to a local school.

In exchange, the Mesquite athletes and coaching staff hosted an Arizona Cardinals Kids’ Camp with 125 young students and athletes leading local youth through football drills and, most importantly, offering lessons on teamwork that will hopefully last a lifetime.

Participants in the Arizona Cardinals Kids’ Camp had the opportunity to work with athletes and staff from Mesquite High School. (Photo by Harrison Zhang/Cronkite News)

“The Arizona Cardinals came in and did a great renovation of our varsity football field and you can see it behind me, it looks great,” said Rod Huston, Mesquite’s principal. “Just to get us back to looking like we’re a championship football program like we are with our two back-to-back state championships.”

Rick Cunningham, a former NFL player, coached Mesquite, the two-time defending 4A champions, through the end of the 2020 season. Cunningham understands the impact of an event like this, which is why he wanted to witness it in person.

Cunningham, a tackle, played eight seasons in the NFL, including for the Cardinals from 1992-94, where he appeared in 36 games. He later played three seasons in the Canadian Football League. Despite his longevity on the field, Cunningham knows the important work comes off it, with community partnerships like the one between Valley high schools and the Cardinals.

“A lot of these kids today stay at home playing video games and stuff, never going outside, and they should get out and get active,” Cunningham said. “That’s the most important part, just to have a lot of fun.”

On this day on the new Mesquite turf, as high schoolers split off into stations, young children ranging from early elementary to early middle school spread out across the field. They took instruction from the pseudo-coaches for the day. It was a preview of what could possibly be the future of coaches and leaders sharing their skills with the next generation.

Participating in football drills under the watchful eyes of former NFL players was one of the participants’ favorite parts of the Arizona Cardinals Kids Camp. (Photo by Harrison Zhang/Cronkite News)

One Mesquite player, Ali Mahmoud, stood out. He was cheering just a little bit louder, coaching just a little bit harder. Visibly excited, Mahmoud could see the future right in front of him, and he wasn’t going to waste a chance to share his knowledge.

“I think this gives kids an opportunity to experience different things,” Mahmound said. “So you find what you like. I didn’t know about football until later in life.”

Mahmoud made sure the kids felt not only his passion, but also how much fun the sport can be. As kids moved between stations, the early morning sun climbed high, along with the temperatures, but the energy only increased as the children tore up the grass field.

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Ben Patrick, another former Mesquite coach who now coaches at Gilbert High School, felt similarly to Cunningham, and decided to use his voice as a fellow former NFL star to make an impact. Patrick was drafted by the Cardinals in 2007, and played for the team until the end of his NFL career in 2010. Patrick has remained an integral part of the Valley football community, and this day was no different.

“You have a lot of their team out here today giving support to the community,” Patrick said. “That speaks volumes to the Mesquite program.”

Halfway through its season, Mesquite sits at 3-3 overall. But this day, and the impact the Cardinals’ donation will have on this program, will leave a legacy far bigger than any one game or even one season ever could.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Gabrielle Ducharme expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in digital audiences. Ducharme, who has worked with the LA Sparks, Canada Basketball and Arizona Sports 98.7, is working in the Phoenix Sports Bureau.

Harrison Zhang heh-rih-sun z-hang
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Harrison Zhang expects to graduate in May 2022 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Zhang, who is a digital media intern with Sun Devil Athletics, is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.