Top Memphis CrossFit competitor mentors inmates at 201 Poplar

Top Memphis CrossFit competitor mentors inmates at 201 Poplar
(Photo source: Mark Adams)
(Photo source: Mark Adams)

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - A Memphis native and former professional football player turned CrossFit coach placed 24th at the Central Regional competition in Nashville, which sends its top competitors to the 2017 Reebok CrossFit Games in August.

A torn ACL ended James Lancaster's professional football career, but he credits the injury for bringing him to CrossFit. Still, it's not just CrossFit competitions that keep him moving forward. It's the 18- to 24-year-old men at 201 Poplar who wait all week in anticipation for Thursdays when he shows up with his good friend, Joc Crawford, to train with them.

Lancaster and Crawford both consider CrossFit--and their volunteer work at the jail--a second chance.

"It's just crazy how it all has happened, because I would not have been here if I had not gotten injured. I would not be going to the Central Regional. I probably wouldn't be connected with Joc at the jail mentoring these young men in there if I hadn't gotten injured," Lancaster said. "So, yes it is a second chance, and I'm extremely blessed to have had that happen."

Crawford, who found himself in juvenile detention as a high school student, worked for years to overcome the decisions he made back then. He saw opportunities with top SEC colleges come and go, but despite the situation he found himself in, Crawford worked to make the best of it.

"That one incident set me back with grades and everything, and I eventually had to go to junior college because of that," Crawford said. "For me, it was a way to redeem myself. I knew that I could make something from it."

Crawford worked his way toward playing football internationally until he got an unexpected request. Reverend Audrey Gonzalez, a woman who made an impact on him during his time in juvenile detention, reached out with a simple request that would end up setting Crawford and Lancaster on a life-changing path.

"She [Reverend Gonzales] wants me to bring influential people around, anybody who's going to change their mindsets," he explained. "By this time, I wasn't doing CrossFit. I started CrossFit when James started teaching them CrossFit. So, I've been doing it just as long as they have been doing it."

"We put them through a workout and from then on, it was like, this could really be something, because a lot of these guys have never had anyone to look up to, never had anyone to hold them accountable," Lancaster said. "They never had someone encourage them and say, 'Hey, everybody is looking at you. What are you going to do about it? Which way are you going to go? Your teammates are counting on you.' So, we knew from then on that it was going to be something cool, because it was going to give them something to buy into."

When Crawford went back overseas to play football, Lancaster carried on the Thursday tradition.

"I've been around great men and I want to give that to those guys, because I know that they will do it for the next guy," he said. "I don't care if it's just one, even if that's just one, because down the road, what's going to happen is that he's going to save another kid's life and then that kid is going to save another kid's life. He's going to save a police officer's life. He's going to save a family member down the street's life. It's all like that. Just teach one guy--teach one guy how to live and he'll teach the next guy."

Those who work at the jail told Lancaster that his and Crawford's presences are clearly making a difference and making the young men more receptive to one another.

"I didn't have the role model in place for me then, but now it's like, I made mistakes, decisions I shouldn't have made. We do this once a week and we influence some guys and impact their lives," Crawford said. "We are probably some of the only people they expect to get a visit from, not even from their family. They consider us like family."

"The F pod is, there are a lot less incidents that go on in there. They have something to look forward to. There is a lot more that goes on than us getting them sweaty for an hour every Thursday. You could go on and on with what it does in the body, the chemical reaction in your body, the hormones, fighting depression, all those different things happen when you exercise," Lancaster said. "I've got the five captains, they gather the guys up and we're ready to do team competitions. They strategize with one another. They put people with different strengths and weaknesses in different orders. Just all those different things that teach them--when they get outside--what to do next. And even if they do go to jail for a long time, which some of them are going to jail for a long time, being able to take that to the next phase in life. It might be jail forever, I don't know, how are you going to deal with that? Being calm under the chaos, that's what we want to teach them. The glass is half full."

It was the same glass half-full mindset that helped Lancaster overcome injury to become one of the best CrossFit competitors in the Central region.

"I was really bad at it [CrossFit]. I had some goods in there, I was powerful; I was fast; I could move some weight around. But there were so many ineffeciences," Lancaster said. "My overhead mobility was bad. I was still kind of rehabbing the knee a little bit, all kinds of different things, and that's what I loved about it. I love that I'm bad at it, because I can prove through my work ethic and my diligence that I can get better at this."

Lancaster's hard work, persistence, and determination to find his new identity after his football career ended is what propelled him to the CrossFit regionals.

"It's exciting, but it still hasn't really hit me. I still feel like I'm just getting ready for the next competition. I think it will hit me when I'm at the Music City Center and the buzzer goes off and I'm looking down the lanes and I'm seeing all these guys I've seen on YouTube and I'm like, 'Well, this isn't YouTube anymore. I'm here.' I think that's when it will truly hit me," he said. "It was extremely exciting that I did qualify, but you know, I'm just grateful."

Lancaster placed 24th overall at CrossFit's Central Regional competition, which was held May 26-28 at Music City Center in Nashville. That competition advanced its top five competitors to the CrossFit Games in Madison, Wisconsin, with the hope of earning the titled of "fittest on Earth."

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