Devin Gardner of Inkster is considered the state's top overall recruit. He has committed to Michigan. (Sam Webb/GoBlueWolverine.com)
The Detroit area has a long history of producing high-level football talent, but for years that fact has been obscured the city's historic basketball prowess. That oversight often left talented gridiron prospects under-recruited or ignored. Recently, Think Detroit PAL associate athletic director Curtis Blackwell has attempted to change that dynamic with the Sound Mind/Sound Body Football Academy. In its six-year existence, the event has grown from a one-day affair that drew maybe 100 athletes, to a three-day event for more than 400 youngsters at Wayne State's campus last weekend.
"One of the main reasons we have Sound Mind/Sound Body was exactly what you saw on the field," said Blackwell. "It's about bringing the attention of college coaches and recruiting services to the City of Detroit to highlight and bring attention to the talent that has kind of been overlooked."
More colleges responded to Blackwell's call this year than ever before. Michigan sent nine coaches, including Rich Rodriguez. Michigan State sent seven, including coach Mark Dantonio. Add in representatives from Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Kent State, Akron, Morgan State, Grand Valley, Wayne State and Albion, and you have exposure for Detroit-area football talent at an unprecedented level.
Bringing such an event to fruition wouldn't have been possible without generous sponsorships by local organizations like Think Detroit PAL, the Michigan Pro Athletes charity, the Lifting as We Climb Foundation, and Total Health Care. That said, the biggest chip was thrown in by San Diego Chargers star and native Detroiter Antonio Gates.
"Antonio Gates gets all the credit," said Blackwell. "He stepped up. So many years in the past we had players step up and say they would help out, but he stepped up and cut a check. Plus he was out there every single day for the camp. He just wanted this to be his legacy in the city of Detroit. Now it will be the 'Antonio Gates Sound Mind/Sound Body Academy.' He wants this to be something that really goes on in his name. His name attached to it for the next several years."
Gates is the latest in a long line of NFL prospects to give back to the area by supporting the camp. Ron Rice, Larry Foote, Tyrone Wheatley and a host of other current and former NFL stars have donated money and time. That they've actually been present at the event is one of the primary reasons for its effectiveness. Their background and status allows them to connect with high-school athletes on a level few others can.
"Sound Mind/Sound Body encompasses what it is to be a student athlete," Blackwell explained. "Kids in Detroit don't lack talent. It is mainly just on the off-the-field things -- the classroom or what they're doing outside the classroom out in the streets -- that tend to be the problem. We just try to give them what they need. We've got to meet these kids right where they're at.
"So many times people make the assumption that you can go out there, line the fields, roll the ball out there, and it is going to be all good. That doesn't address everything these kids need. We decided that we were going to teach about the things that they need to know away from the field like STD awareness, talking to them about how to set goals, and how to enroll in the (NCAA Clearinghouse). We have an NCAA representative that flies in for the camp. We talk to the kids about dining etiquette and what you should do when you're out at a formal dinner. We even had Larry Foote tell his personal story about spirituality and how the mind controls the body. When we say Sound Mind/Sound Body, it means more than just you got to be a football player."
That message is one that will help ensure future success even for those that don't go on to earn athletic scholarships. For those that do, it's blueprint for how to avoid the pitfalls that have derailed many of the talented players that came before them.
Michigan commitments Devin Gardner and Ricardo Miller were on hand. So, too, were Michigan State commitments Tony Lippett, Mylan Hicks and William Gholston. The event was dotted with standout moments by numerous players, but none was more consistently dominant than Inkster's Gardner. He has staked his claim as the state's top player with outright dominance in camps and combines throughout the spring and summer. His Sound Mind/Sound Body performance was more of the same.
"We all know he's a great athlete and he showed that by doing very well at receiver in addition to quarterback," said Scout.com Midwest analyst Allen Trieu. "What has impressed me the most recently, though, is how much he has improved as a passer. His mechanics are like night and day from this time last year and his passes have much more zip. The work he has put in as a passer has paid off."
All that time spent honing his passing skills makes what he was able to do as a wideout all the more impressive. After each throw, Gardner stepped into the receiving line so he could take on the best defensive backs. One by one he called them out -- most notably Detroit Cass Tech's Dior Mathis and Detroit Renaissance's Hicks. By day's end, Gardner was viewed by most as both the top quarterback and top receiver in attendance.
The only player to experience any level of success against the future Wolverine was his future rival, Hicks. The future Spartan was beaten on a few occasions, but not nearly as much as the rest of the defensive back contingent. A virtual unknown in the winter, Hicks once again proved he is more than worthy of his current recognition as the state's best defensive back.
"He's a cover corner in every sense of that term," said Trieu. "He has the feet you want, the ball skills and maybe most importantly, the competitive nature. He doesn't back down from anyone and plays right up in your face. He has shown throughout this spring and summer that he is one of the best players in the state."
There were other strong showings, as well. Livonia Stevenson running back Austin White displayed strong receiving skills and great burst in running back vs. linebacker one-on-ones. Detroit Crockett quarterback Tony Lippett worked out at receiver and showed speed, body control and hands typically seen in pass catchers that have played the position for more than just a few months. Florida transplant Ricardo Miller flashed the raw athleticism that so often puts defensive backs at a disadvantage. Gholston, a linebacker from Detroit Southeastern, worked some at defensive end and displayed the speed that could make him a menace of the edge at the next level. And Highland Park junior wideout Jamal Hosley burned his name onto the list of top prospects in the state's 2011 class with his blazing speed.
Sound Mind/Sound Body was a must-see event for college coaches and scouts in the area, and it should be that way for years to come. Mission accomplished.
Sam Webb is managing editor of GoBlueWolverine magazine and GoBlueWolverine.com, and co-host of the "Michigan Insider" morning show weekdays on Sports Talk 1050 WTKA. His column appears every Thursday.