This story appeared in the Detroit edition of the October ESPN RISE Magazine.
Growing up, Will Gholston spent many nights alone, accompanied only by the thoughts racing through his head. He needed a release, someone to talk to about life in the inner city, someone to share his stories with. But rarely was anyone around to listen. So Gholston turned to pen and paper and put his life in words.
The beginnings of his stories were real, his own poignant experiences written out as they'd happened. The conclusions, those were up to Gholston to decide.
"I would get my pen and let it talk," Gholston says. "When you're younger, people might not respect what you say, but they might be more likely to respect what you write."
Gholston wrote about nights spent on the streets throwing rocks at cars. He wrote about his brother in juvenile detention. He wrote about a life constantly on the move -- 15 schools from first grade through high school, few friends, even fewer people to rely on. Every aspect of his life as an adolescent vagabond went down on paper. Then Gholston let his imagination finish the stories off.
He wrote the endings as he wanted his own story to play out. The good kid overcomes the bad situation to become a great football player whom fans cheer and classmates look up to. He makes it out and thrives, stays out of trouble and goes to college.
"I had a temper when I was younger, and I would take my anger out when I wrote," he says. "Instead of being bad, I would write something."
The words were difficult to write, and even now Gholston is protective of them. But with his nights of throwing rocks at cars long since passed and his family life stable, Gholston is writing another happy ending. Only this time, it's real.
Since transferring to Southeastern (Detroit, Mich.) during the winter of his sophomore year, Gholston has found stability as a person and as a football player. The 6-foot-7, 255-pound senior linebacker is the state's No. 1 player in the ESPNU 150 and the No. 33 overall recruit in the nation.
"He had a tough upbringing," says Southeastern defensive coordinator Archie Collins, who has been a mentor to Gholston since his transfer. "He didn't come from a great family structure. People have told him things but didn't come through. I wanted him to know when he came here that there are people here who are going to support him and will continue to support him."
When Gholston arrived at Southeastern, he was still battling the personal issues that marred his childhood. He had moved around Detroit his whole life -- from 8 Mile to Highland Park to Rosa Parks Boulevard to many other places -- and had never settled in one school for more than a year.
On the field, Gholston had developed a cocky attitude. He bragged about his football prowess, showboated when he made a nice play, loafed around during training sessions, arrived late to practices and made excuses for his absences.
Gholston needed stability. He needed motivation. He needed a good kick in the pants. Collins and Southeastern provided all three.
Upon arriving at Southeastern and promptly missing a weightlifting session, Gholston was called out by Collins. The coach told him if he missed practices or lifting sessions he would be benched on game day, which was the harshest punishment Gholston could imagine.
Then Collins asked Gholston to do something he hadn't done much of in a while: write. Not about his current life, but about what he wanted to accomplish in the next five years. The crumpled-up piece of paper -- with goals like graduating high school, earning a college scholarship and playing in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl -- still holds special meaning for Gholston.
"Sometimes I have to go back and look at the paper for motivation," Gholston says. "It helps me stay focused."
Once he put his goals on paper, he promptly started chasing them. He had a phenomenal junior season, racking up 101 tackles and 15 sacks to earn Under Armour All-American honors and lead Southeastern to league and district titles. For a player his size, Gholston possesses exceptional speed (he runs the 40 in 4.6 seconds) and hands (he plays tight end on offense), which helped him emerge as one of the nation's most sought-after recruits from the Class of 2010.
"He's a coach's dream," Southeastern head coach Donshell English says. "He has a motor that never stops running. When you watch him on film, he's always around the ball, whether the ball is five yards in the backfield or 25 yards downfield."
The likes of USC, LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Florida and Alabama all heavily recruited Gholston, but most wanted him to drop to a three-point stance and attack quarterbacks as a defensive end. Gholston prefers playing linebacker, so when Michigan State offered him a scholarship to play that position, he gave the Spartans his commitment this past summer.
During the recruiting process, Gholston sought out the advice of his cousin, current New York Jets linebacker Vernon Gholston. Vernon, a 2008 first-round pick who played at Ohio State, told his cousin to pick the best school, not the best football team.
"He just told me that you have to be proud of your school and proud to wear those colors," Gholston says. "He said the most important thing was to make sure I was comfortable with my coaches and that I would get a good education."
Gholston plans to graduate early and enroll at Michigan State in January so he can get accustomed to college life, learn the Spartans' defensive schemes by spring practice and hopefully earn playing time as a true freshman next fall. But that's not all Gholston is looking forward to.
"I'm going to be on the video game," he says with amazement, referring to the EA Sports NCAA Football series. "That's going to be the craziest part. I can't wait. I already created myself on the team, so I play all the time."
Even in his most creative stories, Gholston never imagined that.
Brian A. Giuffra writes about high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.