By Brandon Quinn
ANN ARBOR — Darting one by one down the hallway, roughly 100 boys careened into Michigan Stadium on Thursday afternoon, unfazed by the surroundings. They entered through the security door beside the stadium’s main tunnel and ran forward to the Wolverines’ locker room. The hallway, lined with pictures of Heisman Trophy winners Charles Woodson, Desmond Howard, and Tom Harmon, didn’t draw awe.
After two weeks, these settings were homelike. There was work to be done. No time for stargazing.
Looking over the field at Michigan Stadium field later in the afternoon, seeing the same 100 young men running around the hallowed turf, former Wolverine Erik Campbell, now U-M’s football operations assistant, marvelled, “You can see after two weeks just how the kids’ attitudes and morale have changed from the first day they came in.”
That’s because, rather discreetly, Michigan Stadium has operated as a multipurpose facility for the last two weeks.
The skyboxes have been transformed into classrooms, hosting Detroit public school teachers delivering daily lessons. The locker room has housed closed-door speeches about life, responsibility, and fulfilling potential. The field has been a training ground used by players and US Marines.
The focus of the effort has been 100 students from inner-city Detroit selected for the Youth Impact Program. Not to be mistaken with some short-lived football camp, the Youth Impact Program has been hosting the 6th-to-8th graders for daylong activities since July 6.
Overarching through three concentrations — academics, leadership, and athletics — the program is delivering life lessons.
Half the day is spent in the classroom with four teachers from Detroit public schools handling the academic portion. A group of seven Marines is spending all day alongside the boys for leadership training. As for athletics, that falls to Michigan football’s entire sophomore class — from stars like Jabrill Peppers down to the walkons — who serve as football coaches to four teams of 25 players apiece.
“We use football as the carrot to bring the alphas in, then we teach them and introduce discipline and structure,” said Riki Ellison, a former 10-year NFL player and founder of the Youth Impact Program, which hosts similar events at Northwestern University and West Point Military Academy. “Then we merge it all and it’s a fabulous merger.”
That was obvious on Thursday.
With the program set to conclude on Saturday, the group was given a morning presentation on giving thanks and appreciation. Then they were given short pieces of string and asked to go around to the counselors they connected with, tie the piece to a string “necklace” worn by the counselors, and say why they were appreciative.
By the end of the day, Michigan sophomore Maurice Ways looked like he was wearing Mardi Gras beads.
“I was just chilling and all the kids came running to me,” said Ways, who attended Detroit Country Day High School. “It was amazing because we had a talk yesterday in the locker room and I talked to them about growing up as a black man in America right now. A lot of these kids come from the city of Detroit and the hood and things like that and they don’t have a big brother to look up to or a positive-impact role model.
“I want to be there for them so we had a real talk about the real world. … A lot of these kids took it to heart and heard what I was saying and said it changed their life in a positive way.”
The Youth Impact Program came to Michigan via a fortuitous relationship between Ellison and Michigan special teams coach John Baxter.
Baxter coached Ellison’s son, Rhett, at USC in 2010-11. Pursing the idea of bringing the program to U-M, Baxter then introduced Ellison to U-M associate athletic director for football Jim Minick, who took on a great deal of the planning. Once Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh signed off on it, the deal was done.
Harbaugh then decided to use the program as a leadership opportunity for his sophomores. That seems to have worked out. Standing on the sideline Thursday, Peppers called the last two weeks “a family bonding moment.”
The U-M players were assigned in groups of five or six to coach the program’s four teams. The real impact came, though, in group speeches to the boys.
Peppers’ message: “Your approach to football should be your approach to life. Stay disciplined, not just on the football field when it’s a hard count. Can you stay disciplined in class or in a situation that if you don’t stay disciplined, then you can get yourself in some trouble? … Learn these lessons now so you don’t learn them the hard way.”
Peppers says that while growing up in New Jersey he wished he could have had an outlet like the Youth Impact Program. That fed his eagerness to embrace it.
“We come from similar circumstances, similar backgrounds, similar places to grow up, similar activities surrounding the places we grew up in — all the outliers and the distractions,” Peppers said. “I definitely see myself in a lot of these kids.”
The past two weeks have served as a culmination to a June 4 “draft” at Cass Tech High School in Detroit. That night, the program participants arrived in suits and ties, ready to hear their names called. Hosted by former Wolverine Jibreel Black, the boys were introduced — “With this pick in the 2015 Youth Impact Program draft, Michigan selects …” — and walked across a stage to receive a Michigan hat and snap a picture.
“It was a beautiful thing, seeing the look on their faces and their families’ faces,” Ways said. “When their kid’s name was called, they’d yell, ‘Oh, that my baby!’”
Ways smiled a wide smile at the memory.
It was almost as wide as those from the faces on the field.
Brendan F. Quinn covers University of Michigan basketball and football. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on Wolverines hoops. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org