Sam Lilly sat in the bleachers at Glenn Hills Middle School and watched as his boys basketball travel team warmed up for an afternoon practice.
The excitement for the talent he has in his program was heard in his voice. But instead of rattling off on-court accolades and statistics, Lilly pointed to each player and remembered their GPAs and SAT scores.
“We look for integrity and character in all our athletes,” Lilly said. “Same with our coaching staff. We do a good job with life skills. It’s about bringing the community together.”
Lilly started Sports Academy South seven years ago as a way to train athletes ages 5-18 from across the area. His academy, which is based in Grovetown and holds practices and camps across the area, has the typical programs such as travel sports, but his goal is to offer more beyond athletics.
The academy includes a strong focus on education and college preparedness, as well as life skills to develop the young athletes into productive adults. Rather than brag on his 17-under basketball team’s accomplishments, which include runner-up at the US Amateur Basketball National Championship, he takes pride in his players’ classroom scores.
“Education is big,” he said. “I don’t know of a travel program that does as much as we do with the time we’ve got.”
Lilly, who starred at Butler and Georgia Tech before playing parts of four seasons as a defensive back in the NFL, considered helping youth athletes from an early age. It quickly developed into his passion, and he has previous stints with area high school athletics.
He also remembered where he came from and considers it important to give back to the community. That’s why he brings back local athletes to help with his camps, such as former Lincoln County standout Charles Folger, who Lilly said returns every year to speak to the athletes.
“When I played football I always brought my money back home,” Lilly said. “A lot of them stay where they play. My passion was to always come back and help the kids. There’s so much more we can do as athletes or educators.”
Lilly sees his calling at his academy, where he’s looking to grow in numbers, programs and eventually secure a permanent place to hold his camps.
“This has been a dream, a vision of mine since I was little,” Lilly said. “I started when I was 16 at a Baptist church working with softball. I just love doing it. I think it’s my calling and vision.”
Reach David Lee at (706) 823-3216