July 17, 2015
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- There is an old proverb, believed to have originated in Africa, which claims that "it takes a nation to raise a child."
That unified approach was put into practice the past two weeks on the field at Michigan Stadium, the Jack Roth Stadium Club, and even at the University of Michigan's Natural History Museum.
Twenty members of the Wolverines' sophomore football class -- including offensive tackle Mason Cole, defensive back Jabrill Peppers and receiver Maurice Ways -- combined with six U.S. Marines, four Detroit teachers and other Michigan staffers and alumni to provide an education with a powerful message.
The Michigan Youth Impact Program, which had 100 boys ages 10 to 14 bused in daily from Detroit, provided a one-of-a-kind experience. The boys, labeled "at risk" and in need of life changes before reaching high school, were given tough love, hard facts, post routes, academics and a number to call from their mentors.
The Wolverines, Marines and teachers combined to impart lessons in English, math, life skills, mental and physical fitness, and football.
Jack Roth's third floor on the stadium's east side became an open classroom setting, while the field below became the site of a football camp. They took a field trip Wednesday (July 15) to the Natural History Museum while getting treated with lunch at the Pizza House on Church Street and getting a glimpse at the Ann Arbor Art Fair.
Coach Jim Harbaugh addressed the campers the first two days, and YIP founder Riki Ellison, a former USC and San Francisco 49er middle linebacker, also delivered messages.
Four former Wolverines greats -- tailback Billy Taylor, lineman Will Campbell, quarterback Devin Gardner and linebacker Larry Foote -- spoke and interacted with the campers.
"We want each of our boys to have the courage and confidence to make the right decision at the right time for the right reasons while under extreme stress," said Riki Ellison, who started the program that has served more than 3,000 boys at colleges nationwide since 2006. "We are all going to be put in stressful situations, and that's how you win football games and how you win in life. You've got to be able to handle it."
Ellison said two campers from the early program days are on college football scholarships, including Arizona sophomore free safety David Price. But Ellison emphasized that the point isn't churning out major college talent.
The focus is, according to the program's website, targeting those "who are resistant to or uncomfortable in classic learning environments." And it's been successful. YIP has twice been recognized by the U.S. Congress in Senate and House Congressional resolutions for its overall achievement, innovation and impact.
The program also partners with the NFL, and a field trip to Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions, was a highlight for the campers. But the focus of the program is pointing "alpha males," as Ellison termed them, in the right direction by gaining their trust and attention through relationship development.
Foote, now the linebacker coach of the Arizona Cardinals, grew up on the same mean streets of Detroit that these 100 boys are. He was a self-professed "knucklehead" until seeing the light in church and recounted the misdeeds and poor judgment of his youth for them.
The campers sat on the carpeted floor in front of Foote, who leaned forward from a cushioned chair to better connect with them. One boy propped elbows on knees, resting his chin on his knuckles. He was captivated by Foote's honest approach to helping them.
Foote spotted a boy with Ali on his name tag, pointed to him, and said to the group: "Ali, you are laying a foundation right now. The 13-year-old Ali needs to set up the 33-year-old Ali for his future kids, his future family. You are defining who you will become right now! And the 33-year-old Ali, he doesn't want to be in jail; he doesn't want to be dead."
Making changes was the central theme.
"One guy here is just like I was, growing up an angry kid," said Peppers, who is from East Orange, New Jersey. "And in these two weeks, I've seen the tremendous strides he's taken in controlling his anger and channeling his anger -- which is one of the main things I was trying to stress to him. It's not being angry, it's the decisions you make with it. You can easily channel that anger into something good and positive. And now he's putting in the effort to do that."
Peppers continued, "I told him, 'We are so similar.' Things that he's going through, I've already gone through. But I had to learn the hard way. Luckily for him, we share some common experiences. I told him what helped me to give him a foundation to build upon to ease things at home for him.
"It's crazy because I was one of these kids about five years ago. Now I get to have the opportunity with him that I wish I'd been able to have, having someone come speak to me and tell me that there is a way to get here from those circumstances."
Peppers recalled what enabled him to find his way.
"It was the experience of my brother passing," said Peppers of his brother, Don Curtis. "He was out there doing things he wasn't supposed to be doing. That just opened my eyes to not make my mom want to go through that again and to show her that I will make it through sports and education.
"The options to what we were doing were dead, jailed or paralyzed. I lost a lot of my friends to that stuff. I lost my brother. That made me take football seriously, and I didn't even know it could pay for college. I told my mom I was going to get a scholarship. I was an urban kid who wanted to be down and do what my brothers and older cousins were doing.
"So, I told them that at this age, this is where the divide happens. People begin walking down the different paths in their lives. I said, 'Some guys choose the wrong path, but you guys were fortunate enough to come to this camp and have people speak to you from Larry Foote to Devin Gardner to Big Will. Take advantage of it.' It's about opening their eyes to believe in themselves that they can become something. I told them, 'You don't have to be afraid to be different.'"
Foote and Peppers both spoke to the hard-but-necessary task of breaking ties to friends who were negative influences. They used analogies to football to connect, and Foote shot down the debilitating messages he believed many rap songs contained. "They feed us the poison," said Foote.
This program is an intended antidote.
"We're trying to be the big brother they never had," said Ways, who coached a team labeled the Dream Catchers by Wolverines quarterback Wilton Speight. "We've got 25 guys on our team, and during the week I could see them changing every day. They are becoming better people, more considerate."
Ways played at Detroit Country Day, a prep school in Beverly Hills, Michigan, and said he had the benefit of a father and older brother who showed him the way. Cole comes from a strong family unit and played at East Lake High in the affluent Tampa Bay community of Palm Harbor, Florida.
"Not only are we changing their lives," said Cole, "but they're changing our lives. It opened their eyes but opened my eyes, too.
"Each kid can come in here every day and be happy, be positive. We talk to them about resolving conflicts, getting along with parents, sex and drugs, alcohol."
Staff Sgt. Raphael Bell, who was in charge of the Marines from Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township, Michigan, was so impressed with the impact that on Wednesday (July 15) he brought his own son to observe.
"It's a great and awesome impact," said Bell. "These kids have been exposed to things they didn't even know were here. They see now that they're not alone. I see it in their eyes that they know we'll never leave them behind and that someone cares for and loves them."
Asked to pin-point the results, Bell glanced at the boys gathered at Michigan Stadium in T-shirts and shorts and said, "Life changing, sir."
Wolverines, Marines and teachers made it happen.
Michigan football recruiting coordinator Erik Campbell teams with director of football operations Rick Finotti in running the football activities. Shari Acho, Michigan's director of career education and advancement for student-athletes, is the curriculum director. Wesley Ellison, daughter of the program's founder and a director of fund-raising development at Michigan, is the program director.
Riki Ellison said working with his daughter brought "special meaning" to this endeavor, and she concurred, adding that she would like to design a similar program for girls.
Wesley Ellison said the passion her father and Harbaugh shared for giving back to inner-city youth made this venture happen.
Riki Ellison added, "The buy-in from the University of Michigan has been spectacular, and it takes the full buy-in to make this thing work."
There were benefits for the student-athletes as well.
"It's a bonding for this whole sophomore class," said Wesley Ellison. "Coach Harbaugh felt this was the right age group. Harbaugh said, 'I want this to be a leadership development for my rising sophomore class.' They got their freshman year out of the way and are coming back as leaders."
Peppers nodded in agreement.
"It's great for us, too," he said. "We definitely became closer when we talked to the kids and saw how each other worked with the kids. For us to be out here is another family bonding moment. We became closer. We were already tight-knit, but this added to it."
Aaron Jones, a camper from Detroit, said he bonded with Peppers. Jones got the message, noting that he won't be able to attend a school like Michigan without getting his academics in order.
Jones said Peppers shared his life's story with him.
"I got really close with him and all my coaches," said Jones, 14. "I've got a nickname for him. I call him 'Salt and Pepper.' It's a good vibe here."
He said the "vibe" was the highlight for him: "Everyone loving on you, showing you the right way to go and how to get out of places and situations where you don't want to go."
The scheduled program concludes Saturday (July 18) morning with a scrimmage and closing ceremony, but Campbell said there will be more.
"This is going to be a year-round program for these kids for years to come," said Campbell. "Periodically, we are going to bring them back up. We want our players to be mentors to them. We will bring them up possibly for football, basketball or baseball games. And we are going to touch base with them so they know they are not forgotten. We'll also want to see their progress.
Ways added, "I've got a couple guys that I am going to stay in touch with and exchange numbers. I don't want the program to end. I still want to be in their lives and be an outlet for them when they need someone to talk to when they are going through hard times."
Each camper received a nameplate and hung their clothes in the actual varsity locker room at the Big House.
"Their eyes got big," said Campbell. "We told them, 'You're a Michigan football player now. You are part of the program.' And when they see our guys play on TV, they can say, 'That guy is on my team.' "
The villagers connected with one hundred inner-city boys, making them a team while hopefully raising them to new standards, new habits and new friends.