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Keymonne Gabriel is two years removed from playing on Detroit Loyola's football team. But his speech to this year's team still resonates.

He told players to trust the words of head coach John Callahan. He is a good man with a good plan. Gabriel did not always follow his coaches advice and a promising Division I football career is in recovery. He allowed opportunities to slip and he is finishing up a two-year stint at Dodge City Community College in Kansas.

Current players listen to Gabriel and other alumni who drop by to make sure the program is still churning and players are learning.

Being a football player at Loyola goes beyond football. It is about belief, trust and sportsmanship. Players bought into the teachings of Callahan, the former Notre Dame Prep coach who came to the inner city to make a difference.

Loyola (12-0) is one step from advancing to its third straight Division 7 state football final but needs to get past Pewamo-Westphalia (10-2) at 11 a.m. Saturday at Jackson's Withington Stadium. Callahan not only taught players the game but he taught them to love one another, a huge barrier that drew odd looks when he arrived here six years ago.

Big tough men do not like to use the word. They did not always know love. There were too many obstacles in life. There are 45-minute bus rides for some. Others are dealing with family strife, poverty, death and chronic illnesses with loved ones.

Now Loyola players use the word frequently.

"Love is a tough word. It is not always used on the football field," Callahan said. "I love them. I care about them. When I first got here, they were like, 'What are you talking about?' Now you hear it. I love you, Coach. Tough guys can say that."

"We are family every day of the week," nose guard Anthony Fitzpatrick said.

This three-year run has been one of triumph and tragedy. Two parents have died. A brother of a player was hit by a car and seriously injured. Brothers came together and mourned together. They still pray for the lost before games and practices.

Defensive lineman Devin Hayes felt that love when his dad, Derrick, died during his sophomore season. He'd never been hugged so much in his life — by brothers both young and old.

"The team came around me and it was like having another family," he said. "I could talk to anybody if I needed anything. They made the situation a lot easier."

It may sound corny but Loyola players swear love and male bonding made them a better team. Folks at Loyola will tell you they always had talent and good teams. But the teachings of Callahan strengthened the bond and upgraded the program to one of excellence.

Coach Cal makes the 45-minute commute from his home in Rochester Hills daily, including the offseason where he hangs around the school in case somebody simply wants to talk.

"Coach Callahan has the ability to make players believe in themselves and believe in one another," said Father Mark Luedtke, SJ, school president. "He has worked hard to perfect the personal development and it is so much more than just team success."

It is a small school of 150 that requires players, along with other students, to work at soup kitchens, help the elderly and pitch in when the community is in need. Practice does not begin until 5:30 p.m. because seniors work Wednesday and Thursday afternoons and juniors on Mondays and Tuesdays. They work to learn new trades but they also work to help pay off tuition.

Loyola has gotten help from the community. Callahan raised money to build a weight facility. Later, the Ford Foundation upgraded the weight room into a state-of-the-art facility. They practice on a 30-by-70-yard slab of dirt and grass with one giant spotlight to illuminate it.

"Correction. We raised some money and got a second spotlight," Callahan said with a hearty laugh.

When you get beyond friendships there is firepower on this team. Running back Marvin Campbell has rushed for more than 1,700 yards and 30 touchdowns. Fellow running back Mideyin Wilson is closing in on 1,000 yards. Offensive lineman Hayes (6-foot-3, 325 pounds) paves the way for them while defensive ends Patrick Harvin (6-3, 225) and Alonte Rice (6-4, 240) make it difficult for opposing offenses. It is also difficult to attack through the air with ball-hawking defensive back Anthony Frierson recording eight interceptions.

None of this comes easy. Loyola usually plays on turf fields. But the practice field is usually a muddy mess. And guess who gets to clean the uniforms? Yes, you guessed it. Coach Callahan.

"We can't even see sometimes," Hayes said. "Right now it is really hard. If we are passing, we can only pass in certain areas. But we make something out of nothing."

tfoster@detroitnews.com

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