Detroit Free Press:
As 110 Detroit kids knelt in the middle of Michigan Stadium this morning, they received a quick introduction to Jim Harbaugh’s world.
The Michigan football coach stood before them, opening the Youth Impact Program, a two-week camp focused on academics and football for Detroit middle school students.
And he was setting the tone.
“Anybody else here wake up excited this morning?” he asked the students. “Wake up early? I was up about 4:30 this morning. Jumping. Does anybody else wake up at 4:30?”
A few students raised their hands.
Whether they realized it or not, they were there because of Harbaugh tying the Youth Impact Program, initiated by former NFL player Ricky Ellison, to Michigan football. With U-M staff members organizing with the YIP staff and a bevy of U-M sophomore football players working the camp as coaches and counselors, there was a Wolverine feel today.
Harbaugh’s on-field speech came at 9:45 a.m., but his day started much earlier because he wanted the authentic experience. He got dropped off in Detroit and took the school bus ride with the kids “just for the thrill of it.”
“They probably asked 100 questions on the bus ride over here,” Harbaugh said after the players had begun their day, a short combine and academic testing. “Good ones, too.”
The questions were all over the place, from football and scholarship opportunities to his playing and coaching career to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to nerves to his life and decisions.
For the next two weeks, the kids will experience an 8 a.m.-to-4 p.m. day that is equal parts academic and athletic, exposing them to part of life that might have seemed out of reach.
Ellison approached U-M associate athletic director for football Jim Minick with the idea, and Harbaugh agreed to put the football program’s operations behind it, even though the coaches aren’t participating.
“Detroit is one of the toughest cities, and Jim coming in here with a new program, he was a little familiar with what we did with the 49ers the last four years,” Ellison said. “I thought this was a great opportunity to make difference.”
Ellison said YIP ran a program at West Point two weeks ago, and just in the span of the camp, testing scores leaped 54% in English comprehension and 12% in math.
U-M athletic development director Wesley Ellison and Shari Acho, the athletic department director for career education and advancement, were the directors, and Ellison (Ricky’s daughter) said that Harbaugh wanted to make sure it was an opportunity for at-risk students who had a genuine interest in football and wanted to learn.
“The main objective for kids is to get the NCAA athlete experience,” Ellison said.
For the Michigan football players from the sophomore class, it was a job — but one they were engaged about, seeing themselves in the students.
“It means a lot because I was one of these kids growing up,” U-M second-year safety Jabrill Peppers said. “I was one of these kids. Growing up in a rough area, you’ve got a lot of choices to make. Life is all about choices. One choice can ruin the rest of your life. We’re just here to enlighten the guys on some things in life that a lot of us learned the hard way. We want to make their lives easier.”
The opportunity was one that the players were eager to share.
Though Peppers, from East Orange, N.J., and receiver Freddy Canteen, from Wilmington, Del., did not grow up in Detroit, they understand what their status means.
“We’ve been blessed to be put in the spotlight, and these kids from Detroit look up to us,” Canteen said. “We’re here to help the next ones get to where we are today.”
The kids were going to be split, via a draft, into four teams for the duration of the event, with at least six current Wolverines assisting — along with a Marine and a Detroit Public School teacher for an educational experience.
“It starts kids at an early age, trying to reach out and mentor kids,” said U-M recruiting coordinator Erik Campbell, who was assisting with the camp. “For our sophomore class, having an opportunity to learn to mentor and lead, it’s important also for our players.”