KENNEWICK -- Lionell Singleton and Brandon Wilson are enjoying breakout seasons for the Tri-Cities Fever.
Singleton, a defensive back, leads the Indoor Football League with six interceptions, and Wilson is one of the star linebackers for a team that is 5-0.
Their accomplishments go beyond on the field and the part-time jobs they hold down beyond the arena, but ask both players where their hearts are at, and they will talk about Eastgate Elementary School in Kennewick.
Their program, called The Next Level of Academics and Athletics (or NLA2), has been labeled a success by anyone who has seen it first-hand.
"I've been coaching for 10 years, and I don't think anybody I've coached has made an impact in the community like they have," said Fever coach Adam Shackleford. "What a gift they're giving this school. These guys aren't doing it for the money. They're doing it because it's important to them."
Eastgate principal Niki Arnold-Smith agrees.
"The kids really look forward to it," she said. "Just by completing their homework, kids often get better grades. But sometimes, it's hard if the child comes from a home where English is a second language. Or the parent has a tough work schedule, with two jobs or more. It also gives the kids somebody else to look up to besides their parents."
Singleton and Wilson launched NLA2 in October and the concept is simple: Have these latchkey kids come to the school's gymnasium right after school ends, with the football players there to meet them and lead the program.
Tutoring and homework are completed first, followed by 45 minutes of various physical activities, and then an arts-and-crafts period until it is time to go at 5 p.m.
The program runs every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.
It costs is $1 a week for kids who are on free or reduced lunch. It's $5 a week for other kids. Almost all the helpers are volunteers from the Cathedral of Joy in Richland.
On some days, as many as three volunteers show up to help. Sometimes, other Fever players will help out. That's why Malcom Bennett, Rudell Crim, Dennis Kennedy and Houston Lillard are no strangers to Eastgate.
On any given day, 30 to 45 kids will show up for the program. And it seems to be working.
"I'd probably be sleeping after school if this program wasn't here," said Brennen Silva, a 10-year-old fourth-grader at Eastgate. "I'm getting A's and B's on my tests. Before this, I was getting C's. I like doing my homework, and they help me finish it."
It's the same story around the gymnasium.
"It's helped me with finishing my homework and improved my reading skills," said fourth-grader Victoria Madrigal, also 10.
Singleton grew up in Florida, where he participated in a similar program as a youth.
"I had an idea about helping the community like I did with kids in an after-school program in Miami," said the Florida International University graduate. "They were always doing those programs concentrating on schoolwork. But there was no physical fitness. Every kid loves to play.
"I came here and saw there wasn't much for kids to do after school," Singleton continued. "My main goal was to have a place for kids to go to and be safe."
Singleton, in his second season with the Fever, attends the Cathedral of Joy during his time in the Tri-Cities. That's where he met Bob Johnson, who has been a part of the congregation for 32 years and now sits on the church board.
The two men talked about Singleton's idea, and Johnson brought it to the board. He said the senior pastor and another board member long had hoped to participate in such a program.
"It just fell into place," Johnson said.
The board agreed the program was worthy and wanted to hold it on the church campus. Transportation and the cost to low-income families had the church looking for a school, so Johnson and his board approached Eastgate and the Kennewick School District.
"Our first concern at the beginning was how much or what to charge," said Arnold-Smith, the principal. "Then the church said they would donate their time. It's been a full program ever since."
Singleton knew he couldn't do this on his own. He needed a partner, and who better to ask than a teammate.
After the 2011 season ended, Wilson planned on returning home to Texas to work out, complete his trainer's certification and maybe hook on with an indoor team in Texas if things with the Fever didn't work out.
Then Singleton called.
"I didn't hesitate at all," Wilson said. "I told my mom about it and she said 'Go for it.' What made me want to jump into it was my lifestyle growing up -- where I looked up to my coaches."
Singleton said he hasn't seen his own family in more than a year, but he views his connections made via Eastgate as extended family.
"Lionell and Brandon come in during the school day and check on some of the students," Arnold-Smith said.
Last week, during half-time of their home game vs. the Wyoming Cavalry, Wilson, Singleton and their Eastgate kids staged a flag football exhibition for the 4,000 fans at Toyota Center.
On March 10, after the first of Singleton's two interceptions, he couldn't contain himself. He was so excited that he ran over to a bunch of screaming and howling kids in the stands and tossed them the football.
Those were his kids.
Wilson has enjoyed a similar experience. Last week, he picked off a Wyoming pass and returned it for a touchdown, falling into the endzone after an amazing 35-yard return.
The loudest screams came from his Eastgate kids.
Most of those kids can't afford a ticket to a Fever game, but in both cases, Fever owner Teri Carr donated tickets to the families so the kids could watch.
"I want to support what Brandon and Lionell are doing," Carr said. "It's totally selfless what they're doing. They're not making any money doing this. If I can't give my time, I can give tickets to their kids to show them what their mentors do.
"A lot players come in and decide the Tri-Cities is where they want to live," Carr continued. "These guys have taken it a step further and wanted to contribute to our youth. They actually inspire me."
Carr also allows the two players to sell game tickets to church members, and $5 from each ticket goes to their program.
NLA2 is just the beginning.
"Our plan is to expand," said Singleton, who is 26 and majored in sports management at FIU with a minor in business. "We want to go to Park Middle School because a lot of these kids will go there. We've had a number of schools tell us, 'We'd love to have your program here.' I just think this is something we could expand."
Wilson, 25, graduated from Illinois State University in kinesiolgy with an emphasis in parks and recreation management. He continues to be amazed at how successful the program has grown.
"I think for me the biggest surprise is just how the kids respond to us as far as us being role models," Wilson said. "There are some kids in the program who used to skip school. They're not doing that anymore."
And it all started with an idea, the willingness of two professional athletes to run with the ball, and the combined support of a church and school district.
"I don't think they understand fully what they do for these kids," Shackleford, their coach, said.
Johnson, the church board member, agrees.
"It's pretty amazing how God works through ordinary people to get extraordinary results," Johnson said. "Lionell says he's motivational, but I disagree because that lasts just a few hours. I say he's inspirational, because he's turning people's lives around."