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UM players excel as role models for youth program

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The yellow yarn necklace around Maurice Ways' neck was generously filled with hand-tied strings of blue and yellow.

Each was given to him by a participant in the two-week Youth Impact Program as recognition of how they felt about the Michigan wide receiver. Several Michigan sophomores worked the program, which concludes today, but Ways was sporting the most statement-making yarn lei.

The program, founded by former USC and NFL player Riki Ellison in 2004, emphasizes academics first, then leadership and football. This was the first time Ellison made Michigan a destination — he also hosts camps at Northwestern and West Point — attracting 100 boys from Detroit and the surrounding area.

For the Michigan players, who worked as groups of six to coach four teams, it was an opportunity to flex and find their leadership muscles.

"We had a talk Wednesday in the locker room and I talked to them just about growing up as a black man in America right now," Ways said. "A lot of these kids come from Detroit and from the hood and things like that and they don't have a big brother to look up to or a positive-impact role model, and I want to be that for them.

"So we had a real talk about the real world. ... A lot of these kids took it to heart and they heard what I was saying and said it changed their life in a positive way. A lot of them said thank you for being that big brother they need in their life."

Defensive back Jabrill Peppers shared his stories growing up in New Jersey, and also told the participants that spending most of the last season out with injuries emphasized why it's important to focus on academics.

"I was these kids five to six years ago," Peppers said. "We come from similar circumstances, similar backgrounds, similar places to grow up, similar activities surrounding the places we grew up in, all the outliers, all the distractions. I definitely see myself in a lot of these kids, actually.

"I wish I would have had something like this growing up. ... Before high school, I didn't know football could pay for college. That's why I'm here, to teach these guys lessons I learned the hard way. One of the main things I've stressed, use what you do on the field and let it transcend off the field."

The participants, who spent half the day in classes held in the luxury suites at Michigan Stadium, also heard from a group of Marines, who shared their lessons of leadership.

Participant learns plenty

Participants are selected, in part, via an essay.

For Aaron Jones, that essay came not in hopes of attending the camp, but for an English class during the school year.

Jones, a 14-year-old who attends Lincoln Middle School in Warren, was asked to write an essay about something he loves. A running back, he wrote about football.

His teacher loved the essay, and his mother submitted it to camp officials for consideration.

He was selected, and he said he learned plenty the last two weeks.

"Make sure your academics come first," Jones said. "If I want to get into the Big House, I have to have my academics right. If I want to be a football player, I have to make sure I have everything set up and have a backup plan for myself because I'm not going to get here without my academics."

Jones was part of the team — the "Go Getters" — coached by Peppers.

"I asked them, 'Do you want to be the best on the field? You've also got to be the best in the classroom,' " Peppers said. "Your approach to football should be your approach to life. Staying disciplined not only on the football field when it's a hard count, but can you stay disciplined in class?

"A lot of the guys who are in college right now, you see it all over ESPN, some guys didn't learn the lessons they should have and it's showing now."

Relationships developed

Mike Bradley, associate director of athletics for the Police Athletic League and director of football operations for PAL, said they learned plenty from the program, and look forward to future involvement. He said football is the piece that "captures" the attention of the kids, and then they are more willing to learn in the classroom.

"Some of the kids face more challenges than others; some, their home life is great," Bradley said. "For some of these kids, as they get to high school and go through high school and the recruiting process, this will always be in the back of their minds."

There are no government or grant funds for Ellison to run the camps, which he said cost about $100,000 apiece, all of which he raises. His daughter, Wesley, a former water polo athlete at Michigan, is the program's director.

Ellison, who hatched the idea in 2004, loves that the players assist and develop their leadership skills while working with kids learning that academics should be the priority, with leadership and football not far behind.

"We want to give them access and trust and send them back to be leaders," Ellison said.

By having the program run two weeks, the kids can get into a rhythm. More importantly, they develop relationships with the college players.

"This is a process," Ways said. "These are 12-, 13-year-old kids who are hard-headed and sometimes don't listen, but they want to get better. That gives us time. So if they didn't get it today, it gives us time to be patient.

"This has been a humbling experience because, wow, somebody looks up to me as a big brother."