Football changed Josh Clauer’s life. Now, he's a program leader with the Dane County Gang Response Intervention Team, and he lets kids know that sports and extracurricular activities can help them, too.
"There’s so much talent out here that’s being wasted because of lack of encouragement, being told that 'oh, you can’t do it,'" he said.
Clauer has a masters in criminal justice management and focuses on gang prevention and intervention at Madison Memorial High School, its feeder schools and the surrounding neighborhood. He motivates kids, gives them opportunities and acts as their cheerleader, he said.
He meets weekly with a group of boys to let them talk about the issues of the day, weighs in at neighborhood meetings and hosts summer “Skills Through Sports” camps with fellow program leader Ty Mahone. Kids who can’t afford a sports camp can show up at local parks to eat lunch, work out and learn sports drills.
Using sports to keep kids out of trouble and give them a future is one of Clauer’s primary passions. A few years ago, he started “None In The Gap,” a nonprofit aiming to help underprivileged kids find academic and athletic success. Clauer, who was a punter in high school and college football, taught interested kids to punt.
One of the students was Mateo Mora, who was born without a left hand. Mora started punting with Clauer when he was 13. Now a junior at Memorial High School and punter on the football team, Mora hopes to continue in college.
“You get a little bit of a rush, just trying to help out your team in a bad situation,” Mora said. “There’s not a lot I can do on the field, but as much as I can, I want to help.”
None In The Gap isn’t running as a nonprofit anymore, but Clauer still preaches the power of extracurriculars and coaches kids on the side.
“My philosophy has always been balls, books, stayin’ busy,” he said. “Anytime you have an idle mind, it’s not a good thing.”
What led you to want to work on the Gang Response Intervention Team?
I was working at Madison Area Urban Ministry with guys that were coming out of the institution. Basically, it was just seeing the hardship. People think that you get out of prison, you get a job. No, it’s not that easy. Because you have your rules and regulations, and you also have to think about travel, how you get to your employment, how you get even to the application.
That's kind of what led me to kids. I thought, if we can prevent this at the front end, then we won’t have to worry.
What does gang activity look like in Madison?
I think it’s important for people to realize that throughout the world, whenever you have cancers in our society, be it poverty or whether it be educational gaps, whenever people are not equal, you’re always going to have an element of gang activity. You will always have groups of people that click together to give themselves the things that everybody wants, such as love, money, respect.
Where does your motivation to battle disparities come from?
I have two parents that taught me right. They taught me to love all people, they taught me to be a go-getter and to work hard.
In my life, I had ADHD and I also was born with the congenital heart disease of aortic valve stenosis. So I was told no a lot. “No you can’t play football, no you can’t do this, no you can’t do that.”
When seventh grade football rolled around, I bugged my heart doctors to let me play. And they were like, "no, but you can be a punter or a kicker." So I showed up and was told by a coach, "We don’t need a kicker.’’ Everything I had hoped for totally fizzled out.
But one of the winningest coaches in high school history in the state of Wisconsin had just become coach at our high school. And he heard, and he said, “look, if you practice, if you try really hard, I’ll get you a spot.”
From then on, football became my counselor. I had mentors, I had a positive peer group, and was able to have goals and dreams. I don’t even know whether it’s the punting of the football that I like or I like what it did for me.
So when I came here and started reading the statistics on Madison’s gaps, I was kind of like, what can I do as a man in the community? So I offered up what I had, and that was football. But I believe that can be offered by many other individuals, whether that be writing, whether it be playing the flute. Whatever some kid might have a spark of interest in, I believe is definitely a carrot to providing success.
So even though None In The Gap isn’t an operating nonprofit anymore, you’re always willing to step in?
Regardless of my job I made that commitment to myself, because that’s who I am. I’m not somebody who can just sit back and watch people struggle.
I’m not a salesman … I would rather just do. If everybody just offered up one of their talents to one of these kids and just did it, we would be so much better off.
You tried out for the NFL, right? Did you always want to be an NFL player?
With ADHD and all that kind of stuff, I wasn’t prepared for college. I went to a Division III school, but in my heart of hearts I knew I was a Division I type football player. But I wasn’t prepared for the classroom at all.
So later on in life … knowing what I had inside me, I ended up getting myself a tryout, to see if I had what it took to play in the NFL. But I was old. I had already quit my college football team and put it aside, but it was eating at me, on a daily basis. So I went to try out, and at that older age, I had what it took. I became a free agent, and was bouncing around, traveling from state to state trying out and working with some of the greatest coaches in the world, and ended up not making it.
My struggles have provoked that, have made me ... I know what it’s like to be these kids. Because of my ADHD or whatever, I remember one time somebody told my mother that she should prepare me to start working at a fast food place. So I think of these things when I’m out motivating these kids, because I’m like, somebody’s probably telling them that.
Tell me a little bit about when you first found Mateo and wanted to teach him how to punt.
Crazily enough, I have a cousin that was born with the same exact birth defect as Mateo. So when most people were like, there’s no way a kid with one hand could punt, I already knew better, because I know a one-handed piano player who can play hoops in my family.
I kind of test the kids sometimes to see how bad they want it, and he was one of those kids that kept knocking on the door. I could see the work ethic in him, I could see the drive. And I knew that having one hand, he knew how to face adversity, just because every day he has an adverse situation that he confronts.
We had some whispers before: “He’s only got one hand.” And in my head I’m thinking, “Watch this.”
Who’s your all time favorite punter?
My all-time favorite punter, skill-wise, is Reggie Roby, an African-American punter.
But when I was in high school, I looked up to Louie Aguiar. He punted for the Jets, the Packers, the Chiefs, (and the Bears). When I was trying out, I saw that he was doing some coaching after his career trying to help free agents. I sent him an email, and I was sitting in my house and the phone rang and I answered it, and he said, “This is Louie Aguiar, just wondering if you can send me some film of yourself.”
He not only ended up coaching me a little bit, but ended up being a good friend. Here was a guy that had made it, and he believed in me. Just to have that happen, like if you’re trying to be on TV or whatever and Oprah calls you, that was my Oprah.