'I'm playing': Michigan's Kwity Paye resolute about tackling 2020 season despite COVID risk
Detroit — Michigan defensive end Kwity Paye has never wavered when it comes to his desire to play football this fall despite all the uncertainties.
The Big Ten on Wednesday announced a 10-game composite schedule although there are no guarantees the season will be actually played because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Michigan opened preseason camp on Friday and the Wolverines’ season begins Sept. 5 against Purdue at Michigan Stadium.
Paye briefly considered leaving for the NFL after last season and most certainly will be a coveted prospect in next year’s NFL Draft. He remained in Ann Arbor after all on-campus activities were suspended in mid-March and worked out on his own focused on the fall.
“I’m playing. If we have a season, I’m playing,” Paye told The Detroit News Thursday night. “I see a bunch of other guys opting out. I came back for a reason. I came back to play.”
On the eve of Michigan’s camp, linebacker Adam Shibley, who founded TUFF, The Uniform Funding Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money to outfit under-served youth football teams in Cleveland and Detroit with the plan to expand into other cities and other sports like girls basketball, and teammates and TUFF board members Jess Speight, Jared Davis, Jake McCurry and Paye were in Detroit donating uniforms to four youth football teams.
Paye said it was a relief to see the schedule announcement earlier this week.
“It was all unknown,” he said. “We were like, it would suck we’re doing all this stuff (voluntary workouts then walk-throughs and meetings for two weeks) and they would cancel the season. When they came out with the schedule and said we’re playing the season, it was like finally, we got some closure on something at least.”
Among the schedule, quirks is the Michigan-Ohio State game, traditionally the last of the regular season, on Oct. 24 in Columbus.
“I love it,” said Paye, who had 50 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks last season, said of the OSU game in October. “I like it because it gives us enough time to get into our season and get into our flow without having the dead legs and fatigue. October is a great month because it’s real nice out, the temperature is starting to go down a little bit. I think it will be great, to be honest.”
Paye said everyone was “eager” to start when the Wolverines opened camp Friday.
“We were kinda all scared that it was going to get canceled before, but now we’re going into camp, we’ve got the schedule now, so it’s given us a boost in a way knowing that there’s a possibility that we’ll have a season,” Paye said. “That’s all we needed and now we’re going to go into camp and keep working.”
The 6-foot-4 Paye, who returns to start at defensive end along with Aidan Hutchinson — the pair call themselves “Salt and Pepper” — is listed at 272 pounds — but he said he fluctuates between 280 “one day and the next it could be 268.”
For Paye, being part of TUFF is personal. He wants to see kids have the uniforms and gear he never had as a kid.
“I just remember growing up and the uniforms I played in,” Paye said. “They weren’t the best uniforms, and playing against other teams, they would come out in nice helmets and all the jerseys looked brand new from that year, and we’d wear uniforms that had been in the organization for years. It wasn’t a nice thing. Coming out here and helping these boys out, giving them new uniforms, it was for sure something I wanted to do because I grew up being jealous of the other teams like, man, I wish I had some jerseys like that.
“Swag is very crucial for your game plan. Once you feel good, you play good.”
The Detroit PAL league canceled the season for these teams so a player’s mom, LaKenya Burks created a six-game regular season and a two-game playoff for them with the first game on Aug. 29.
So many of the local resources that are normally shared with youth sports in Detroit, she said, have been diverted to COVID response. That’s why she was so grateful when she found out TUFF would be lending a hand.
“It’s such a blessing,” Burks said. “It’s so good somebody is thinking about the kids.”
Shibley, who started TUFF in the fall 2018, is from Cleveland and got the idea after seeing some youth players in the city asking for donations for their team. After busily organizing the event Thursday night, Shibley said it is gratifying to see how much TUFF is appreciated.
“When you see how grateful the kids are, saying thank you and smiling, that’s the best feeling,” Shibley said.
Jared Davis, a defensive back and economics major, handles much of TUFF’s marketing. They all play a role in fundraising with Speight having a significant hand in it. The group has seen a significant spike in donations this summer.
“It shows where peoples’ hearts are,” David said. “There’s a lot going on with social inequality and it just shows people do really care and people really do what they can to stand up and help people. It’s cool to see people step up during a team when it’s really needed. A little light in the world is always awesome.”
Receiver Jake McCurry led a large group of the youth players as they ran races.
“It was a good time for everybody, good even to keep COVID off your minds and maybe or maybe not having a football season,” McCurry said.
Like Paye, McCurry was relieved to see a schedule release.
“I’m a little bit surprised we made it this far,” he said. “It excites me. It’s my last season so I’m excited to have one more fall camp and be with my teammates. And have a 10-game schedule where we’re playing our Big Ten opponents which I kinda like with more difficult games because special teams matter more and I’m heavily involved in special teams.”
The players wore masks and face shields as they distributed the uniforms and hung out with the youth players. Now, with a schedule in hand and camp beginning, they’re ready to go and hope to actually play.
“We’re encouraged,” Speight said. “Feel liking a big gust of wind hit our sails.”