On Saturday, a bus will leave from Michigan, and in the span of a week, will take a group of high school football players to 14 different colleges for their summer camps with the goal of earning scholarships for the student-athletes on board.
Canton defensive end Darius Robinson, Farmington Hills Harrison two-way lineman Maverick Hansen, Southfield safety Marcus Fuqua and defensive lineman Devin Baldwin, Farmington linebacker Jordan Turner, and Walled Lake Western wide receiver Abdur-Rahmaan Yaseen are just a few of the players scheduled to be on the tour who have already received scholarship offers from major schools.
In addition, several former college players, notably former Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner, Bowling Green linebacker D.J. Lynch and safety Isaiah Gourdine, and several others will be on that bus as mentors, and also to meet college staffs as they begin their own coaching careers.
All of this is part of Rising Stars, a training group founded by Reggie Wynns, a man who has helped countless kids over the years, while generally avoiding the spotlight himself.
Wynns played at Northwood and in 1993, two years after he graduated, began bringing kids out to a football field and teaching them techniques. Among that group was Curtis Blackwell, who would go on to begin the Sound Mind Sound Body Football Academies and Maximum Exposure program in Detroit. At the time Wynns began doing this, there was very little available to athletes hoping to be recruited.
When Wynns’ own son Eric wanted to get recruited, as did several teammates, including a then-skinny defensive end named Matt Judon, he came up with the idea of hitting the road.
“My son was 5-foot-5, but he wanted to play college football,” Wynns said. “So I rented a van and took those guys all over the country. I had Marcus Judon, Matt Judon, a bunch of those guys, and I didn’t charge them a penny because I had two mortgage companies at the time. I started studying recruiting. As these kids got scholarships, I said, this is the way to do it, these kids are being helped. If I could get my baby a scholarship at 5-5, what could I do for other kids?”
Judon went to Grand Valley State and now starts for the Baltimore Ravens. He keeps in contact with Wynns. Devin Funchess, now with the Carolina Panthers after playing at Michigan, still talks to Wynns weekly.
“He just taught me something I never really had a passion for,” Funchess said. “He showed me I can be good at the sport. I played little league, then stopped and started hooping. In 8th grade, I went up to the Silverdome and I was getting jammed and didn’t really get it. I was frustrated and he taught me the game and taught me how to use my body.”
In addition to football skills, Wynns is a mentor to many young men off the field, and that continues with players who are at the game’s highest level, such as Funchess.
“He helps me with a lot of things off the field,” Funchess said. “He is a big brother or father figure. He helps a lot of people and gets me out of stressful situations. I can talk to him about everything.”
The bus tour has produced thousands of football scholarships, though not all of those have resulted in an NFL future like it did for Judon, Funchess, or another success story, safety Josh Jones, who went from Walled Lake Western to North Carolina State to now the Green Bay Packers.
Wynns is just as proud, if not more, of those who have gone on to success in other areas of life. He notes former Saline quarterback Joe Boisture, now a Michigan state trooper, former Clinton tight end Nate Dreslinski, who was Most Outstanding Graduate of the Air Force Academy, or former Farmington Hills Harrison quarterback Marcel Eadie, now a doctor.
“His motto is, ‘No kid left behind,’” says Blake Ward, whose sons partook in Rising Stars. “He goes into his pocket so many times to fund things for the kids. And really, first and foremost, he has honesty, integrity and character.”
One of the youngest players to ever begin coming to workouts was K.J. Hamler, who first came in as a 5th grader. Wynns immediately matched him up against high school players like Raymon Taylor, who was headed to the University of Michigan. That paid off as several years later, Hamler was a four-star recruit and signed with Penn State. After redshirting a year ago, he is expected to be a breakout player this year.
“Reggie is so loving and genuine,” says Hamler’s mother, LaTonya Gooding. “He really cares about the kids and has a big, big heart. To this day, we try to make donations to the bus tour if two or three kids are short. When people ask me what to do with their kid in recruiting, I don’t recommend anyone else. If I had to do it all over again, I would do it the exact same way.”
Today, the bus tour has grown extensively. This year’s stops are Rutgers, Wake Forest, Buffalo, Cornell, Tennessee, Old Dominion, Morgan State, East Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, Colgate, Syracuse, Liberty and Howard. It began as a way for kids in Michigan to be looked at by a more diverse range of schools. Now, that is still part of it, but a lot of bonds are forged and lessons delivered that have an impact beyond the painted lines of a football field.
“The biggest thing they get out of it is understanding the recruiting process and how to communicate with coaches,” Wynns said. “How to be respectful, ‘Yes sir, yes ma’am.’ The last couple of years, we dressed the guys up and had them sit down with coaches, shake their hands, meet with administration. To be honest, I wanted my Caucasian athletes to know about HBCU (historic black colleges and universities) and my African-American kids to know about the Ivy League. It isn’t about race, it’s about getting an education. We have had about 15 kids go to the Ivy League and have about 15 more we’re hoping will go.”
The transportation is better too, as the kids now have a big, nice bus – a far cry from when Wynns used to pile his son and his friends in his own car.
Those miles paid off though, as his son Eric would end up playing for Saginaw Valley State University. However, tragedy struck in 2015 when he was killed in a car accident. Seeking to keep his son’s legacy going, Reggie Wynns started the Eric Wynns Foundation.
“My son was passionate about football,” he said. “He always said, ‘I’m going to live my legacy,’ so when he passed, I wanted to keep that going and create a foundation to help student-athletes. Our plan is to give away six scholarships, up to $30,000 a year, to student-athletes. Football saved a lot of lives. It saved my life. If we can save kids’ lives by helping with money, finances, and exposure to get into school, that’s what we’re going to do.”
“He would give you his last dollar if he could,” Funchess said of Reggie Wynns. “When Eric passed away, we all looked at Eric like a brother and Reggie was like everybody’s pops. He wants the best for everyone and wants us to get better and compete and come together as a group. That’s what Rising Stars is.”
Players like Funchess, and parents like Ward and Gooding, know that when this group of kids get off that bus on June 23, several will have more scholarship offers, but they are confident they will all have gained much more than that.
“When Reggie and Danielle tragically lost Eric three years ago,” Ward said, “I said to Reggie, ‘You have hundreds of kids every Sunday (when the group meets to train) you can call your sons. They all look up to you and that is something you should feel very proud of.’”