Penn State gained its reputation as “Linebacker U” decades ago, but if you wanted to place that distinction on a high school, you might want to consider Eden Prairie.
Three football players, each a year apart in school, went from Mike Grant’s program, to the Big Ten, to the NFL, where all three are currently playing linebacker.
Last weekend, Blake Cashman, Ryan Connelly and Carter Coughlin journeyed back to where it all began, and spent an afternoon demonstrating to young athletes just how much fun football can be, at their third annual Cashman Connelly Coughlin Youth Football Camp.
“We were just trying to think of a way to give back to the community, the community that helped us reach our dreams,” Coughlin said between drills at the camp. “That was just crucial in turning us into the men that we are, too, and so we thought putting together a camp would be really fun.
Coughlin went from Aerie Stadium to a standout career at the University of Minnesota before landing with the New York Giants as a seventh-round pick in 2020. He grew up with both Cashman and Connelly in Eden Prairie and welcomes the chance to spend time with his old friends over the summer.
“Blake was a year older than me and Ryan was a year older than him,” Coughlin said. “I grew up playing basketball, football with Blake Cashman really closely and Ryan actually lived a couple doors down. So I’ve known him since I was really, really young playing backyard football, all that kind of stuff.”
Cashman, who also played college ball for the Gophers after his high school career at Eden Prairie, was a fifth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft by the Jets. He played three seasons in New York before being traded to Houston, where he will start his second season with the Texans this fall.
For Cashman, the camp is a way of giving back to his hometown, as well as spend time with his childhood friends and teammates.
“When we all got to the league, it was something we started discussing, but we couldn’t do because of COVID,” he recalls. “And then the first year we were able to do it, we’re like, ‘Hey, all three of us went to Eden Prairie. We all love doing these youth camps when we’re growing up.’ We were like, ‘Wow, let’s get on the other side of that and have another camp an opportunity for these kids to come out and have some fun.’”
The camp itself has one objective: show kids how to have fun playing football. Stations were set up around the practice field at Eden Prairie High School, where the three pros, along with Eden Prairie head coach Mike Grant and members of his coaching staff, led activities for kids in grades two through eight.
The youngsters took turns tackling a padded pylon held by Cashman, who played up getting knocked on his back with each tackle. Another station gave participants a chance to make diving catches while landing on large, soft mats.
Handoffs, throwing and agility drills were also part of the day at the camp, designed to instruct kids on the game’s fundamentals while teaching life skills such as teamwork, communication, work ethic and focus.
During the afternoon, Grant counseled one of the younger players, who was uncertain which position he wanted to play. The head coach shared a story of how Connelly went from being a lineman, to a linebacker, to the starting quarterback at Eden Prairie. Connelly went on to play linebacker again at Wisconsin and now in the NFL.
“You know what you want to be?” Grant asked the youngster. “A football player.”
Connelly was a fifth-round selection by the Giants in 2019 and spent the past three seasons with the Vikings. He signed with the Saints in January and will head to training camp in New Orleans later this summer.
Connelly believes the best way for kids to enjoy football is to fall in love with the game.
“I hope they just have fun,” he said. “Who cares if they learn how to be better football players? I think these kids should just be spending their Sundays having fun.”
The day was also fun for members of the Eden Prairie High School football team, many of whom were on hand to share their knowledge and join in the festive afternoon.
“I love this,” Eagles tackle Ethan Sims said. “It really shows the kids what it’s like to be a high school football player and really break down the positions and do some drills that we do on our level.”
Sims will be a senior this fall and a returning starter on the offensive line. He said he enjoyed being on the other side of the whistle during the camp,
“I really like running the drills and being a coach for a day,” he said. “Because I’m always the one being coached, it’s great to have a chance to coach the kids.
“And they all called me ‘coach’ today,” he added proudly.
Cashman, Connelly and Coughlin each try to spend as much time in Eden Prairie as they can during the summer before reporting to their respective training camps at the end of July.
“It’s the best time to be here in Minnesota,” Cashman said. “But you know, I love being home. So whenever I get a chance to get away, and don’t have to work, don’t have a football schedule, I like to be home or with my friends and family.”
The camp wrapped up with a rock-paper-scissors tournament with heated competition between the age groups, along with photos for everyone to remember the day.
From start to finish, fun and football were emphasized. It’s a formula that has proven successful across multiple generations at Eden Prairie.
“Eden Prairie has established itself as a winning culture,” Coughlin said. “From a young age, doing Coach Grant’s camp creates a love for football, and then the kids grow up loving football, love working and then when they get to high school, they finally jump in this system, work hard and win championships.”
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