The 179th Salem Camp Meeting began with a wonderful start Saturday, especially for the youth of Newton County and other surrounding areas.
Hundreds of youngsters and adults gathered to listen to the testimony of former NFL star Santana Dotson, who was a starting defensive lineman for the 1996 Super Bowl XXXI Champion Green Bay Packers.
"I think it was great; it's a great thing they do," said Dotson regarding the annual meeting. "I feel real fortunate and humbled to be invited, and (to) have the opportunity to speak in a venue that's so historical and traditional with the area...I couldn't have asked for anything more than to be welcomed here today and reach out to these kids."
The special visit by Dotson, who traveled from Houston, Texas to attend the camp, kicked off what is to be yet another amazing and inspirational week-long event.
"Well, it was the first time we've ever tried anything like this," said Covington Mayor Sam Ramsey. "In fact, on Saturday a lot of the people are just moving in to the campground - Saturday morning services are hard for us to get a crowd to, so I thought maybe we'd have him for our youth service today.
"I thought (Dotson) did an excellent job; I certainly appreciate him coming all the way from Houston," added Ramsey.
The Salem Camp Meeting is one of the oldest interdenominational campsite gatherings in the country - a place of peace where worship and spiritual restitution can be found everywhere. The encampment includes a mixed variety of activities for family and friends of all ages, ranging from children to adults.
But the Dotson visit was designated for the youth, specifically those who attended the 11 a.m. morning worship. The goal was to raise their spiritual development as a young person.
Ramsey thought of the idea after meeting Dotson back in May.
"Well, we didn't talk (for) more than five to 10 minutes," said Ramsey, "but you can just sense somebody's character sometimes and sum them up pretty quick. I'm very particular about who I let get in the pulpit at Salem, but I thought this fellow was really sincere."
Overall, Ramsey was thoroughly pleased with the turnout during the morning worship service, as well as the crowd on hand to hear Dotson's speech, which focused on five keys to having a success-filled life: purpose, "be, do, have," choose, passion and integrity.
"Hopefully, we can do this same-type thing next year because it's a really neat experience," said Ramsey.
For 15-year-old Marcus Allen, the young football player took a lot away from Dotson's visit.
"I heard about (Dotson) coming the previous Sunday," said Allen. "I had a good time here today."
Zackary Gomes, a 16-year-old student from Miller Grove High School, thought the speech was inspiring.
"Yeah, it was pretty deep," admitted Gomes, who traveled to the Salem Camp Meeting with other members from Avondale Pattillo United Methodist Church.
Youngsters like Allen and Gomes, among many others in attendance, waited to meet Dotson afterwards, who posed for pictures and signed autographs.
Since retiring in 2001, Dotson has been thoroughly active with his special program, The Santana Dotson Sponsorship Foundation. The program is designed to aid financially challenged and at-risk students among inner city high schools. The idea is to teach young individuals how important it is to help others in need of assistance.
The foundation is affiliated with All Sports Community Service, which is a non-profit organization that is supported by NFL charities. Based on its mission and goals, ASCS is being considered a national program model.
When asked what motivates Dotson to wake up every morning and devote his life toward making a positive change in the world, he stated faith and making a difference - trying to leave each day better than he found it.
"My passion is kids because (they) don't have a choice what they're born into and what they come out of," said Dotson. "A lot of times it's getting in front of these kids and letting them know that "Hey, I came from the same place you came from." Know what opportunities and challenges are in front of you and be prepared for them. The things that you can achieve - you just have to be focused and determined."
For Dotson, it was the first time he had spoken in Newton County; however, it would certainly not be his last.
"(During) this upcoming fall we definitely want to be more involved here and in this general area," said Dotson.
Currently, Dotson and his foundation have reached out to others in Texas, Wisconsin, Florida and now Georgia.
Before he was an NFL defensive lineman, Dotson was a three-year starter at Baylor University in Waco, Texas from 1988-91. He was a standout for the Bears, and was a consensus first-team All-America selection in his senior year. Dotson ended his collegiate career with 193 total tackles, including 18 sacks.
After graduating from Baylor with a B.A. degree in Telecommunications, Dotson was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in '92. After his first season in the league, he recorded a team-high 10 sacks and earned the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
Dotson spent four years with the Buccaneers, playing in all 64 games before joining the Packers in '96. During his first three seasons in Green Bay, Dotson and the great Reggie White were unstoppable. Combined, Dotson and White recorded 49.5 sacks for the Packers.
In fact, Dotson was one of the reasons why the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI. He recorded one sack in the championship game, but more importantly helped achieve his goal and purpose by bringing home the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
"It's so unusual to find somebody now (who) comes into a lot of money, which they do when they are playing (professional) sports," acknowledged Ramsey, "and a lot of them can just blow it, you know.
"But when you see somebody like (Dotson) who has done what he's done with his foundation, it's unusual."