Detroit — Each Sunday morning, several hundred of the area’s top football high school prospects arrive at the Mack Athletic Complex and they spend two hours preparing for the ACT, the standardized test used for college admissions.
Didn’t expect that, right?
And from there, they listen to a speaker or several about different subjects. A stock broker spoke to the group a few weeks ago, and a panel of media offered insights and answered questions last weekend. Finally, they head upstairs and work out, go through various position drills and seven-on-seven matchups for several hours.
This is a new version of Sound Mind Sound Body, an offshoot of the summer camp that Detroit native Curtis Blackwell co-founded in 2004. What set SMSB apart from other high school football camps was the heavy emphasis on life skills, in addition to football.
That emphasis is evident now on Sundays at the Mack Athletic Complex, where the program, at its capacity with about 300 high-school-aged participants, will run to April.
“Every week we try to make it so it’s always fresh,” Blackwell said. “We want to make sure the kids understand the importance of being good people and understand, in order to be a student-athlete, you’ve got to be well rounded.
“We realized over the years that one day over the summer (for a camp) is just not enough, but we never had an opportunity. This facility gives us that. In the wintertime, football players have a chance to develop year-round as well, so this bridges the gap between offseason and the summer camp season.”
Blackwell had most recently served as Michigan State’s football recruiting director, but his contract was not renewed last June after coach Mark Dantonio said the two had “philosophical” differences. He began working on a way to make SMSB — he had to step away from an active role in the Sound Mind Sound Body (SMSB) summer camps while he worked for MSU — more present in the lives of young football players.
There is open enrollment and players of all levels participate from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. The ACT prep in the morning is run by two teachers, then the players must listen to speakers, before heading to the dome, which SMSB leases.
“They have to go downstairs (for ACT prep and speakers) before they can go upstairs,” Blackwell said, firmly.
Players say they respond to the schedule and the discipline.
“I come here every weekend,” said Rashawn Williams, a receiver at Martin Luther King being recruited for the 2020 freshman college recruiting class. “They treat you more like family than players. Coach Blackwell and Sound Mind and Sound Body, they want you to be the best version of yourself. Coach Blackwell talks to kids about transcripts. He really is here for us. He treats us like an uncle or a father figure. He’s a guy I depend on.”
Julian Barnett, a cornerback from Belleville and a Michigan State commitment for the 2019 class, said he enjoys the opportunity to face the best players in the state.
“It gives me exposure to other players and I can work on my craft here,” Barnett said. “It’s helped me a lot actually because with my coach (Jermain Crowell) being here and other coaches here, they keep pushing you to get better and better and to work on your mental and physical abilities.
“I love (the non-football sessions) because it helps in life. To me, it opens up my mind to new things. I see new things, I hear new things and that helps me on and off the field.”
Often, many of the Detroit athletes who are now playing college football, come by and work out on weekends. The high school players said they enjoy being able to share the facility with players like Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas, who both play at Michigan.
Crowell gets as many of his Belleville players to SMSB on the weekends. Parents who transport their kids to the program line the sides of the indoor facility and watch while the players go through workouts.
“The fact it’s in the inner city and most of my kids are from Belleville, they don’t get a chance to work against this caliber of talent,” Crowell said. “It toughens them up and gets them ready for a different kind of grind. And you don’t know who will be here to work out with them, because a lot of the Michigan and Michigan State guys will show up. That gives them something to shoot for because they’ll say, ‘I see him on TV all the time.’ ”
But Crowell also credits the focus on the life-skills sessions and the ACT preparation. He said the players are asked how do they go about their business on a daily basis, and when the get home from school, what do they do. He said SMSB helps to shape them, and believes in Blackwell’s goal to start reaching out to the kids when they’re younger. On Saturday night at the facility, SMSB holds sessions for middle school players.
“Every kid in here has aspirations of wanting to play on the next level, whether it be Division 3, Division 2, Division I,” Crowell said. “It’s a template on how to do it and be successful.”
The SMSB has significant financial support from UAW Ford and Jimmy Settles, and Blackwell said the camp wouldn’t exist without their help. That sponsorship offsets the costs for the participants, who pay $100 to be part of the camp from November to April.
Blackwell and SMSB also will be leading a college tour this spring. They will have two buses taking participants to Atlanta, Virginia and Washington D.C. to visit 12 schools.
When Blackwell helped start Sound Mind Sound Body, this is the direction he hoped it would someday take.
“This is the evolution of the program. The whole purpose,” he said. “When we started off we didn’t know what it was going to be. But it’s an opportunity for players to learn.”