Built tough

Jayru Campbell escaped the streets of Detroit to earn a football scholarship

Updated: November 8, 2013, 3:02 PM ET
By Tom VanHaaren | ESPN RecruitingNation

Sitting in the weight room before a game at Detroit Cass Tech, 2015 quarterback Jayru Campbell rubs his tattooed arms as he talks about growing up in the city of Detroit.

No guts No glory

Those words are emblazoned across Campbell's arms -- a motto he lives by every day.

Campbell grew up without his father, who was in jail when Campbell was born. His father was released when he was in middle school, but the relationship hasn't developed.

"When my dad got out it was never really what I wanted it to be. The coaches really stepped in and became that part of my life that could tell me no you can't do that, or what I should be doing," Campbell, a three-star 2015 quarterback committed to Michigan State, said of Cass Tech head coach Thomas Wilcher and defensive coordinator Jermain Crowell. "There has been plenty of times where I call Coach Crowell during the day and we talk for an hour. They both help me by treating me like their own kid."

Jayru Campbell
Tom VanHaaren/ESPNJayru Campbell has overcome several obstacles to earn a scholarship from Michigan State.
Growing up, Campbell never felt safe in his neighborhood. His childhood memories of playing football outside with his older brothers are clouded by what was happening around them.

With neighbors doing drugs and shooting dice, violence and crime all around him, Campbell used football to keep his mind occupied.

He boasts that he hasn't missed more than three days of football practice since he was 7 years old. Going to practice meant he didn't have to be at home. He knew he was safe.

And now he spends time at Wilcher's house, just to get away.

"There have been times where I go over to Coach Wilcher's house just to watch TV. I help him out with yard work just to get away from my house," he said. "As far as a father figure, I don't really have one to look up to or go home to. If I don't feel comfortable, I can just go to Coach Wilcher's house, the door is always open."

Campbell isn't the only one in this situation, though, and it's something Wilcher and coaches all around the city deal with on a daily basis.

There are different challenges they face when it comes to coaching their players, ones that require the coaches to wear different hats at different times.

Coaches give rides to those who don't have a way home, feed those who don't have money for dinner and even provide shelter if there is no place to stay.

And it isn't just about football.

"The most important thing is that I keep pushing football second, third or fourth. I push family and academics first, and how they can develop socially," Wilcher said. "Everything they're looking for comes from academics at the top. We try to get kids to understand that sports is only a vehicle to help get you somewhere you want to be in life."

"I've grown a lot in the classroom because of all this. I know I've grown a lot," Campbell said. "Ninth-grade year my grades were all right, but I try to stand out in everything I do. Coach Wilcher stressed grades to me, and he's just always putting positive thoughts in my head."

The battle to keep the players on track is difficult because of the environment they live in.

Once one of the nation's largest and most productive cities, Detroit is now filled with spray paint and abandoned, crumbling buildings.

After an emergency financial manager tried to alleviate some of the debt and problems ailing the local government, the verdict was to file for bankruptcy. The biggest filing ever for a United States city, it was another negative notch on the city's belt.

[+] EnlargeDavid Dawson, Jourdan Lewis, Delano Hill
Chantel Jennings/ESPNThe Cass Tech trio of David Dawson, Jourdan Lewis and Delano Hill all signed with Michigan from the 2013 class.
The school systems in the city are failing their students and shutting down one school after another, never more evident than when it was announced that a grocery store would replace a shuttered Detroit high school. The Detroit Free Press reported in January that the city plans to close 28 more schools by 2016.

With few resources available, it is nearly impossible for teachers, coaches and principals to do anything to prevent the downward spiral.

Terel Patrick, an assistant coach at Detroit Martin Luther King, is one of the many trying.

Of the 45 players on the King team last season, only three went home every day to households with a mother and a father. Some had one parent, some stayed with grandparents and some stayed wherever they could for a few weeks at a time.

Talking about his success stories, Patrick recalls an emotional text message from former player Mycial Allen, who signed with Northern Illinois in 2013.

When Allen arrived on campus, he pulled his new jersey over his head and texted his former coach to thank him for everything he had done to get Allen to this point. But also to tell him that he loved him.

"I was just saying I appreciate all the things he did for me in high school on and off the field. For being a mentor for me in my life," Allen said. "I was just happy. He played a major role throughout my career and he's part of the family."

Allen was one of the 42 who didn't live with his mother and father. In fact, he never knew what it was like to have both parents in the same house.

His father left when he was 3, and his mother left him to fend for himself when he was in fifth grade. When he was 12, Allen moved in with his aunt, who took care of him, along with his grandmother and eventually his uncle.

He's the first in his family to make it to college, and he believes that's because of his coaches.

"Everything I went through in my childhood, it just pushed me to get better and become a better young man. Not just on the field, but in school," he said. "In my ninth grade year I was messing up in some classes, but my coaches stressed to me that school is important. Without school, I wouldn't be out here on the field, so I started studying more and got better grades."

Part of the problem has been the decline of the automotive industry.

Jayru Campbell
Tom VanHaaren/ESPNHe still has a year to go, but Jayru Campbell is already looking ahead to a bright future.
James Alexander Sr. was among those affected. He took a buyout from Chrysler in 2008, hoping it was the right decision for himself and his son, James Jr., who attended King.

"There was a time when I didn't know what I was going to do with some of the things my son was going through with not having his mom in his life. I was in between temp jobs and we were just living," he said. "The coaches stepped in and they were like older brothers and second fathers to my son. I love those coaches."

Alexander Jr. was rewarded with a full scholarship to Ohio, where he is currently enrolled.

When they received the scholarship letter, Alexander Sr. framed it and put it on his mantle.

"When we got the scholarship paper, it said four years, zero balance. That put a big smile on my face," he said. "Those coaches are like an extended family. I would do anything for them."

The high school coaches have proved that they, too, would do anything for their players.

There are times when Campbell wonders why. Why do the coaches want to give so much when there is so little monetary reward?

It isn't about football. It's about life. It's about becoming a better person and one day coming back to help someone else.

"The way you break the chain of poverty is once you become successful and self-sufficient to help others, it's your duty to come back to the same neighborhood and help one kid," Patrick said. "If we can get one successful kid from the program to come back and help, it will help us break the chain of poverty and break the chain of not being educated. That's the only thing they owe us, is to come back and help."

At Cass Tech, Campbell sits in the weight room, staring down at the floor. Still touching the tattoos on his arms, he's reflecting on how his coaches have affected his life and where he's headed.

Campbell still has one more year of school left, but he's on the path to success, with a college scholarship in his pocket.

"My tattoos are just a reminder if I ever want to give up, I just have to think, 'No guts, no glory,'" he said. "You can take the easy way, or you can take the challenging way."

He might have taken the more challenging way, but now the glory awaits him.

One more kid has broken the chain.

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