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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

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At Gardner's alma mater, a school with no students

By Everett Cook, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 3, 2013

DETROIT — The doors where Devin Gardner became Devin Gardner have super glue in the locks. Keys don’t work here anymore, not at Inkster, where budget cuts have taken a once-proud community and turned it into a blockade of buildings waiting for demolition.

There are handprints on the windows at the front of the school — bigger than a child’s but smaller than an adult’s. Teenagers were peering in through the dusty windows, trying to get a glimpse of what used to be Inkster High School in metro Detroit.

Officially, the school has been shut down for three months, but it looks like it’s been abandoned for years, as if one day Inkster was operating, and the next everyone picked up and left. Gatorade bottles litter the ground by the baseball field, which is now more of an overgrown swamp than a diamond.

Next to the cesspool is the football field, which still has pylons, scorebooks and yard markers in the press box. The red, rubber surface of the track is slowly disintegrating and the grass is dying. Soon, it will be an overgrown field surrounded by a cement oval.

On the chain-link fence surrounding the field, a sign remains from last football season: Adults, $5. Students, $3.

Even in its prime, Inkster was never glamorous or flashy. Bordering the football field is a power grid full of generators, a mechanic’s garage and a strip club.

But for a while, the alma mater of current Michigan football players Devin Gardner and Cam Gordon was a factory for kids who needed second and third chances, like Gardner. It was where Greg Carter — the athletic director and football coach — had a mural on his wall of all the players he sent to college, most of whom wouldn’t have had a fighting chance without Inkster. Most importantly, it was the pride of a community that needed something to believe in.

Now, its doors are glued shut and the handprints are on the wrong side of the windows.

***

“It’s kind of odd saying this with me being on the team, but…” On the phone, Nathan Lindsey’s voice trails off before he starts laughing. Lindsey, along with his brother Daniel, played alongside Gardner and Gordon at Inkster but now live in Kansas, playing for Fort Hayes State University.

“Man, it really was like Devin and then the Inkster Vikings,” he said. “It was. There’s no other way to put it. If Devin wasn’t playing, the chances of us going to a state championship that year would have been so slim. Especially going to a state championship. … Our team was good, but Devin was a very, very key part to that. He took us to that next level.”

Devin and the Vikings played every game of their season on the road in 2009, his senior year. Thirteen in all. Trying to match his quarterback’s talent, Carter scheduled games anywhere from Muskegon, Mich., to Cleveland.

Entering the last week of the regular season, the Vikings were 4-3 and had to win their last game to make the Michigan state playoffs.

All Inkster had to do was win in one of the toughest road environments in all of high-school football: Steubenville, Ohio, which was riding a 68-game winning streak.

Steubenville is like no place you’ve ever been. The stands are less than 10 feet from the sidelines, and visiting fans aren’t allowed to sit in between the 30-yard lines. Behind one end zone is a massive, 200-person band. Behind the other is a cemetery.

The fog was rolling in. Carter says that the first and only time he believed in ghosts happened on that field.

It was a preview of The Game for Devin — the opposing fans knew of his commitment to Michigan and treated him like he was already in Ann Arbor.

Late in the game and up by a touchdown, Inkster had the ball in its own red zone when Steubenville fired up the band. Gardner and the offensive line couldn’t hear anything. False starts and illegal procedures pushed the offense deep into its own territory.

Gardner finally got a clean play off. He saw a defender coming and rolled right, planning on executing the play that he’s executed so many times before, the one where he heaves it back across the middle of the field after rolling out right — never left. It was his welcome-to-the-show moment last year, the one that made him famous in his first collegiate start as a quarterback against Minnesota.

If he rolled left, he’d still be running. Instead, he took a safety.

Steubenville wasted no time scoring again. Inkster got the ball back with a minute left, down a point, needing a win against a team that hadn’t lost in more than six years.

On third down, Gardner took the snap out of the shotgun, looking left before firing a high, spiraling rainbow down the right sideline for a 64-yard touchdown pass, bringing home a win in a place where teams simply don’t. He finished the game with 275 yards passing, 55 yards rushing and four touchdowns.

Four years later at Michigan Stadium, Gardner takes the snap and rolls right, again, getting a glimpse of the Notre Dame band behind him before retreating farther and faster back toward his own end zone. He keeps rolling back until he’s being tackled in his own end zone, but he wouldn’t let it be Steubenville, he wasn’t going to take that safety, so he heaved the ball away as he was going down, right into the hands of a Notre Dame defensive lineman.

After the game, Carter saw his former quarterback in the tunnel.

“Steubenville?” Carter asked.

Gardner looked down and shook his head. “Yeah, coach. Steubenville.”

“He’s a riverboat gambler,” Carter said. “He’s going to try to do it. He’ll learn with experience when to do it and when not to do it. That’s really hard for a kid that can do just about anything, who is a super talent. It’s either ‘Wow’ or ‘Why?’ ”

Still, even after one of the worst plays of his career, Gardner picked himself up, ran back to the sideline and led Michigan on another touchdown drive to win the game.

At this point, the problem with Gardner is that his problems haven’t changed. That roll-right, across-the-body heave that Michigan is so familiar with? Carter was trying to get him to change that four years ago.

It’s not cockiness, exactly. It’s more like the smart kid who overcommits on a group project but takes on too much work and ends up hurting the end result. If he didn’t try to do as much, the final product would turn out smoother. It’s not because he thinks he’s better, just that he knows how good he is, individually.

But that’s just who he is. It’s the same reason he stuck with his commitment to Michigan even after Tate Forcier had a dominant freshman season and later, when Denard Robinson became a national name.

Gardner thought about transferring after former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez was fired, especially after new coach Brady Hoke arrived and brought in a new pro-style offense that would seemingly take away the dual-threat part of the dual-threat quarterback.

When Rodriguez was hired by Arizona the following season, Gardner had conversations with Carter about leaving Michigan to follow the man who originally recruited him.

That inner faith kicked in, though. If any dual-threat quarterback could make a pro-style offense work, it was Gardner. So he stayed.

He’s a hyper athlete capable of doing almost anything he wants on the field, but he knows that. He’s Michigan’s best offensive player, but he also leads the nation in turnovers. He has the ability to change the game in a snap, but sometimes that’s for the worse and not for the better.

From Carter to Hoke to former high-school teammates — they all say he just needs more time and experience to figure out the turnover issue.

Still, at what point do Steubenville and Notre Dame stop melding into what Gardner still is today? At what point does he forget how easy he made it look at Inkster as the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback prospect in the country?

When does Devin Gardner’s future escape his past?

***

Carter, who is now the athletic director and football coach at Oak Park High School in metro Detroit, started as an assistant coach at Detroit St. Martin de Porres, where he spent 17 years before becoming the head coach there for another 10. He won three state championships. The school closed in 2005, so he went to Inkster, a program that had never made the playoffs.

During his first year as the head coach, Inkster made the playoffs and reached three state championships before Carter left in 2011.

He’s been successful not just because of the Xs and Os, but because he has a system that requires even the toughest kids to buy into it.

Players in Carter’s program rent jerseys from him weekly. Every week he washes them, and every week, the players are required to give him progress reports from their teachers, complete with grades and comments. If the reports aren’t up to Carter’s standards, then the players don’t get a jersey that week.

When Gardner’s coach at University of Detroit Jesuit High School left the program, Gardner’s grades plummeted. He had wanted to go to St. Martin de Porres, but the school closed down the year before he graduated from middle school.

So in November of his sophomore year, Gardner transferred to Inkster. A year older, Gordon came in at the same time. As soon as they arrived in his office, Carter sent both of them to the academic counselor to see if they were even eligible to graduate in four years. He knew they were going to be incredible football players, but he didn’t want football to overtake the academics.

They both bought into the system right away.

Gardner, who declined multiple interview requests for this story, told CBSSports.com last month, “My grades were really, really bad at U of D. I wouldn’t have been able to go to college had I not straightened up. I owe a lot to coach Carter.”

He wasn’t eligible to finish the football season or play basketball in the winter, so Gardner did nothing but schoolwork for the first couple months of his Inkster career. Carter had a vision that Gardner was a much better student than his grades at Detroit Jesuit implied and that he should be able to choose what college he wanted to attend regardless of admissions standards.

“He came over, and we provided him some direction in terms of what he needed to do academically,” Carter said. “We always taught the kids that we want them to use football. We don’t want football to use them.”

Gardner reached two state championships in his two years as quarterback for the Vikings. Both times, they lost. Both times, he was injured in the semifinal game and wasn’t at 100 percent.

But it was about more than that — it still is about more than that, more than just the football field. Gardner always knew what he was doing as an athlete, but that wasn’t important for Carter.

Last spring, Gardner graduated in three years with a degree in Afro-American and African studies and is now a first-year Masters in Social Work student.

“(Gardner and Gordon) graduated together last spring, and that was one of my proudest days,” Carter said. ”Not so much their ability to play football, but to see them develop into young men and be able to handle all the rigors of that kind of schedule. Every one of the coaches I’ve worked with in the past are so proud of those guys.

“To have a chance to complete his Masters by the time he graduated … you never would have thought that when he popped his head into Inkster as a sophomore.”

Without a doubt, Gardner and Carter had a strong bond. Inkster still meant something. In January of his senior year of high school, Gardner was set to graduate early from Inkster and begin practicing in the spring with Michigan. It was all set up with the previous school administration, everything good to go.

But in a period of transition for Inkster — which is a big reason why Carter left the school — there were two interim district superintendents in two years. Carter can’t count how many principals were there in his six years, and it got to be too much to handle.

Carter left Inkster in 2011, and the entire Inkster school district closed two years later. The high school had less than 300 kids when Carter first started. He left a school with an enrollment of over 1,300 kids.

Inkster — like so many other high schools in metro Detroit — closed because of budget cuts. Almost 1,000 students thought they were going one place in June 2013 but were forced to relocate in August.

The rise was fast and powerful, but so was the demise.

“I don’t want to trash anyone because it serves no purpose right now,” Carter said. “Everyone knew I wanted to be there, it just didn’t work out. I was hopeful that I could end my career there, but I took this on as another opportunity to get some help and pride in this building. It was just tough for me to leave Inkster.”

In January 2011, the new administration wasn’t as familiar with Gardner’s situation as the previous one — Inkster had never had an athlete do this before. For a week, Gardner and his mother thought that he wasn’t going to be able to enroll early, and since he had already played in the Under Armour High School All-America Game, he wasn’t eligible for basketball or track. His coursework was done. It would have been a wasted five months.

A solution was floated: Transfer to Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor. He would graduate there early and be on track to practice in the spring.

Gardner shot it down immediately. Absolutely not — Michigan would have to wait.

If he was going to get a high-school diploma, it was going to say Inkster on it.

It didn’t end up being a problem when the school board stepped in to rectify the situation. The issue worked itself out, and Gardner became the first Inkster athlete to graduate a semester early to play college spring ball.

To the public, it looked like there were issues with Gardner’s grades. In reality, it was just a kid who didn’t want to abandon Inkster.

***

Carter is working on a new mural on the walls of his office at Oak Park. He’s starting his third season there, but time will bring pictures of his former players turned college students to put on the walls.

Right now, he has schedules and posters from college coaches who have stopped by to talk to him hung up on the wall. Places like Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Cincinnati. In the middle of the posters is a newspaper clipping from Gardner’s first start as a college quarterback against Minnesota almost a year ago.

In lieu of a college wall, Gardner is what Carter can show off as proof that the system of education over football is working.

Gardner doesn’t have a place to go back and reminisce anymore. He’s got an empty parking lot and an overgrown school garden that looks post-apocalyptic.

He does have Oak Park, though. Carter has made it a point that any of his former players can come work out at the facilities or just come to talk, like they would if Inkster was still running. After last season. Gardner brought his highlight tape and teammate James Ross III over to show Carter and his staff.

Carter called him the Pied Piper, so many kids were following him around the hallways.

Still, Gardner and Gordon’s introductions on the Big House video board each game refer to a school that no longer exists. That won’t change no matter how welcoming Oak Park is.

“I’ll never forget Inkster,” Carter said. “I miss it, I really do, even after I left. That’s probably one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do, was to choose to leave that school and those kids. We still carry that stuff with us. We’ll never forget what was accomplished there and how we kind of got that school to rise up. It’s a great little city, and they need their own school if they want it.

“Kind of breaks my heart the school is closed. Whether I was there or not, that school was there before I got there, and it should be there after.”

There is a massive purple rock in the courtyard at Inkster. If you stand on top, you can just peek over the buildings and see the football field. From this far away, it looks like a high-school football field should.

Nearby, the paint on the press box that says “Home of the Vikings” is slowly fading away. The door’s super glue is still strong.

The hand prints are now the only thing left of the boys who can’t be the hero or the villain or both because they didn’t have the chance to grow into either.


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