Now that Tony Semple’s playing days are over, the former football star is helping kids who are facing disabilities or life-threatening illnesses that can put a jarring hit on self-esteem.

Tony Semple’s life’s journey has taken him from Lincoln High School in Springfield, Ill., to the National Football League. But Semple knows that not everyone’s life takes the preferred path.

Now that Semple’s playing days are over, the former football star is helping kids who are facing disabilities or life-threatening illnesses that can put a jarring hit on self-esteem.

The Tony Semple Foundation for Hope, based in Ada, Mich., brings kids with disabilities and other life challenges outdoors for hunting and fishing adventures.

More importantly, he says, kids get the chance to talk to other kids who have experienced similar setbacks and learn how to draw on their inner strength.

Semple, 40, played college football at what is now called the University of Memphis before playing offensive guard for the Detroit Lions for nine seasons. He retired in 2002.

His foundation puts on a series of camps each year, serving 10-20 kids a year. But don’t expect Semple to have a bunch of hunting and fishing stories up his sleeve. That’s not what he wants to talk about at all.

Instead, he focuses on what happens in camp, around the campfire or in the lodge.

“We don’t just take kids and send them out on a hunt,” Semple says. “We are about the experience. The passion of hunting brings us together, but it’s the group setting, the family atmosphere and the experience of being around the fire — that is what this program is about.”

He says those experiences are very intimate. Kids and camp staff bond over stories of struggle and, ultimately, Christian faith.

“It can be very heartfelt,” Semple says. “Before the night is over, we might have 40 people sharing stories and kids opening up about how God is real in their lives and how they pull strength from that … It can be a very powerful moment.”

And the kids end up helping each other.

“They are always lifting the other kids up,” Semple says.

The outdoors experience — something many take for granted — can help kids find confidence.

“By taking kids that are living with a disability, getting them outdoors, it helps them discover the very real power and gifts they have,” Semple says. “It’s very special, and that is what these camps are all about.”

Semple says he often hears from many of the kids who have attended the camps, especially at important times in their lives.

“I get calls from different kids almost every week,” he says. “We stay in touch.”

One boy came into camp with low self-esteem because of an automobile accident that put the brakes on his life’s plans.

“He left camp and he ended up starting his own company that helps other individuals get back into society,” Semple says. “We were able to take a kid who came in with a negative outlook on life and stop that in its tracks.

“Camp helped him adjust to his new life,” Semple says. “It is so awesome to see that.”

How it started

Tony Semple and Michigan businessman Craig Mortz started the Tony Semple Foundation for Hope six years ago.

“We got the National Football League behind it, and it really took off,” Semple says.

The idea, he says, is not to have the biggest organization or put on the most camps. Rather, Semple wants to limit the size and number of camps to stay focused on the foundation’s ideals.

“We’re not looking to put on 50 camps a year,” he says. “Craig Mortz can’t be at 50 camps, and I can’t be at 50 camps.

“The two or three camps, four camps are very intimate and personal,” he says. “It’s not about trying to become the biggest. We thought, ‘Wait a minute. Let’s be the best.’”

Camps

Michigan is home base, but camps have been held in other states, including Missouri, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.