Iowa officer developed sports program to engage at-risk youth
By Dan Campana
For most people, the phrase “If you build it, they will come” conjures up thoughts of an Iowa farmer and his cornfield baseball diamond – not an Iowa cop using sports to connect with vulnerable kids.
Waterloo Police Officer Justin Brandt is that cop and the Hail Mary Project is the idea he conceived to use sports as a way to engage at-risk youth in the community and provide them with opportunities that would otherwise be unaffordable or inaccessible. Brandt credits a bevy of supporters and believers for helping his initial thoughts blossom into an initiative – which launched in January – that makes a difference through mentorship and camaraderie with sixth through eighth graders during a 12-week program.
“Over several years of dealing with juveniles, especially in the summertime when school is out, I always wondered what it would take to keep them out of trouble. The answer was really just kind of common sense when you think about it: Provide them with something they like to do, something that gives them pleasure and, like the Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come,” Brandt said. “We went straight to the ones who could best answer that question, the violators themselves. The common responses were opportunities to do music and sports.
“Some would see providing those who get in trouble with something they want as a reward, but it’s not like that. I see it as an opportunity to prevent them from God only knows what,” Brandt added.
Brandt joined Waterloo police in April 2009. It was the lone department at which he applied and tested after spending four years in the U.S. Army. In some ways, Brandt makes it sound like becoming a police officer was pre-destined.
“There’s always been this humanitarian inside of me that had a fire to help the helpless,” he explained, suggesting that first emerged around the age of 10.
It was at that time he met his middle school’s D.A.R.E. officers. All these years later, Brandt can still name off the three officers and recognizes how they left an impression – he wanted to be like them.
“I think the desire strengthened over my four years (of high school). Prior to even graduating, I had blue strobe lights installed in the grill of my ‘93 Intrepid and hooked them up to a switch so I could turn them on. I think the fire inside to do this job started around the teenage years,” Brandt recalled.
He also loved sports, including football, but his grades never matched up to his ability to play. Brandt knows a lack of work ethic and motivation limited him to just a year of prep football. Community college was his next step out of high school, but even though he majored in police science, Brandt admits to not being ready for that experience. That was in part because he skipped classes to watch TV coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom – which prompted him to enlist in the Army in 2003.
“Combat looked like a lot more fun than academics,” he said.
Although he never finished college, Brandt picked up an education once he hit the streets working patrol nearly a decade ago.
“This is the backbone of law enforcement, where the excitement lies for most people,” he explained.
But that experience admittedly wore him down.
“I’ve never been the cop who has my house decked out in police memorabilia. Maybe I’ve lacked the pride I should have had over the years. I’ve been worn down from the stress of caring but being unable to actually do much about many of the things we see,” Brand said before acknowledging a renewed perspective that eventually led to Hail Mary. “Nowadays, I see wearing this uniform and badge as a true opportunity to change someone’s life. To change the trajectory a young person might be on and provide the navigational resources anyone might need to get help they need.”
The ball got rolling in 2015 while Brandt was playing semi-pro football for the East Iowa Storm. He connected with a teammate – a one-time prep football standout in Cedar Falls and a former University of Northern Iowa football player – who had familiarity with troubled kids through his work as a corrections officer. The pair began to discuss the parallels between football and real life, as well as the gravity of what was happening on the streets.
While they crafted a vision for what Hail Mary could be, Brandt remained reluctant about “going public” and sharing with his peers an idea based on prevention.
“This was for fear of ridicule, I guess. There seems to be this mentality within law enforcement … if you do things different than what’s been done before, it’s frowned upon,” he explained. “Traditionally, thinking outside the box isn’t welcome. It can be seen as making waves. I’ve never been the type to go with the flow.”
Eventually, Brandt grew tired of seeing so many people in poverty turning to crime to get by. He wanted to attack the problem among youth with something other than handcuffs and jail cells. So he started talking to anyone who would listen.
“I reached out to so many people from various organizations in our area, and a couple people gave me the time of day including Alan Heisterkamp and Michael Fleming from UNI’s Center for Violence Prevention. (It was) the perfect place for this all to start,” Brandt explained.
The momentum steadily grew, as did the parade of community members and organizations who stepped up to help. Brandt lists them off the numerous names with a sense of appreciation for their contributions, but also pride for how so many invested in his idea to generate hope for the next generation. Waterloo Police Chief Dan Trelka emerged as a “great supporter” – “Frankly, without his support, we wouldn’t be where we are” – who helped him eventually connect with the Northern Iowa football program.
“I laid the idea on (UNI’s strength and condition coach) and he brought it to the football players. Thirty seven players signed up to help out with … fundamentals training,” Brandt said, adding the players also assisted with a “Coaching Boys into Men” curriculum focused on teaching respect, integrity and non-violent approaches to real-life situations.
Brandt hasn’t slowed down. He continues to educate himself on outreach, intervention and prevention programs for pre-teens and teens. He’s dug into the psychology behind the factors causing young people to get into trouble early in life. Most importantly, he didn’t resign himself to the notion that there’s no hope.
“I now know that if you’re 10, 11, 12 years old and getting arrested, there’s something going on inside that young person’s head – most likely something is going on at home. It’s not that they’re bad kids. It’s the fact that something’s happened to them, or they’ve been exposed to something traumatic, and now they don’t have the coping mechanisms to deal with the stress. From there, it’s a downward spiral. But, it can be reversed with appropriate intervention and preventative techniques,” Brandt shared.
With an eye on growing Hail Mary, Brandt pushes forward. He’s perpetually learning by engaging in conversations knowing even a simple interaction could lead to bigger things, especially among those he’s trying to help.
“I’ve learned that just having one person who you know truly cares about you can make a huge impact in someone’s life,” he said. “This has essentially become a full-time job when I’m not working, so I don’t have much time to engage in other ways. I just try to get a better understanding of where people are coming from in their lives.”
Where Brandt is at in his life now is a reflection of changing perspectives based on his career, while also remaining true to the inherent humanitarian spirit he’s long held.
“Had it not been for this career, in this city, I would’ve never thought of something like this. I’m thankful each and every day I wake up that I’ve been given this opportunity to collaborate with so many truly awesome people and start a movement that will eventually create a huge impact for generations to come,” Brandt offered. “If we build the road for success early on, (the young people) stay in school, graduate, get better employment and spend money locally. Eventually our reputation increases and outsiders aren’t scared to come to Waterloo anymore. This is what I honestly believe, and I feel the same toward Chicago and any other city with like problems.”
Read the entire 50 Badges series here.