Ball State football coach Mike Neu had a simple message for the local middle and high school students at the Boys and Girls Club Youth Leadership Boot Camp. 

“Our world needs difference-makers, and young people like you need to do something about it,” he said. “This right here is doing something about it.”

The students, all from Delaware County, are on campus as part of a week-long camp. They spend their days in classrooms talking about leadership, inspirational people and how to respond to difficult situations like peer pressure and bullying. 

Participants in the camp aren’t just chosen at random, they have to apply and be recommended by an adult, like a teacher or a coach. Neu said that’s one of the reasons he talked to them — it was their choice to join the program.

“They want that responsibility,” Neu said. “Not a lot of people acknowledge that they want to take something like that on. I think that’s pretty special for this group, and I think it’s special what the Boys and Girls Club is doing here to be able to give back to these kids like that.”

Still, addressing high school students can be difficult. To gauge how relevant his stories would be, Neu would pause and ask questions.

“That can kind of help send you down the right path, if you will,” he said. “This is what information I think they can handle right now; this would be good for them based on the questions they asked early on before we started.”

Some questions, like whether any of the students had heard of the Arena Football League, just received confused looks. Others made students sit up a little straighter, as if they were trying to listen with their entire body.

“Who’s heard of Drew Brees?”

Everybody’s hand shot up. Neu spent the last two seasons working with the former NFL MVP as the quarterbacks coach for New Orleans Saints, so he took the opportunity to point out some of Brees’ habits that translate to the classroom.

“He studies, takes notes, highlights the playbook,” Neu told the students.

The Brees example helped Neu illustrate an overarching point: the basic tenants of leadership apply to all aspects of life, not just the gridiron.

That point rang home throughout the day, as other speakers addressed the group with similar messages — respect both superiors and subordinates, help others reach their potential and keep working hard.

One of those speakers, Lieutenant Colonel Jeremy Gulley of the Indiana National Guard, said he attended a similar leadership camp in the '80s.

“I remember it,” he said. “I still remember it. When you look at developing as a leader as a young person all the way up to a coach of a university’s football program or a lieutenant colonel or commander in the National Guard, that starts somewhere. So when I see Coach Neu or [Boys and Girls Club of Muncie executive director] Micah Maxwell giving back to young people, that’s an investment that will return back to this community when these kids are leading organizations one day themselves.”

Connecting with the community has been one of Neu’s goals since he was hired to lead the football team. He told the students to yell at him from the stands if they attend any Ball State football games.

“Not just Ball State football, but Ball State University — we’re a family,” he said. “We’re only as strong as our weakest link. … That’s what it’s all about at the end of the day is family and making sure that we’re pushing each other to be the best.”

On the field, Neu set lofty goals, but leadership, he said, isn’t about what he believes is possible.

“My job is to convince people we can get that done,” he said. 

Lt. Col. Gulley said that’s his goal — convince the students they can get it done, whatever “it” happens to be for each individual.

“When they see Coach Neu and I both graduating from Ball State around the same time — 1994 for him, 1995 for me — being able to achieve, being able to give back, I think that says to a kid, ‘I can be that one day,’" he said.