DETROIT — It is 5 p.m. on August 29. The heat is just starting to subside and the shoulder pads are cracking a little harder than usual.

“We were going to play like we were trying to make something out of our lives.” – Teric Jones

Two days before, Farmington Hills Harrison steamrolled Cass Tech, 43-7. The loss still stings. Practice is running full tilt.

Twenty rows up in the home grandstand, overlooking the players, a thin green pad lies on the landing outside the press box. An interlocking ‘CT’ in bold white font marks the center of the square pad; dozens of identical pads line the fences behind both endzones.

Dragged up the stands, this padded square, manufactured for the players’ safety, has a new calling as a makeshift mattress. A purple sleeping bag lies partially unzipped at the end of the mattress, likely vacated quickly.

A small white pillow has been discarded, placed to the left of the mattress. The cord of a purple rape whistle stretches out from underneath the pillow. A black coat covers a small pile of clothes in the corner.

The stadium has been someone’s home during the hot summer months in Detroit. The higher you go, the safer you are. So the stadium’s top row has become a safe haven, a sanctuary.

This is life for residents of the Cass Corridor — one of the nation’s most notoriously dangerous districts, known for its guns, drugs and casinos. Detroit’s violent crime rate is the second highest in the United States. The Corridor has among the worst in the city.

But the worst part of the city is home to one of the best football programs and academic schools in the state.

Football is the lifeline for so many inner-city boys coming to Cass Tech, a school known for its steady flow of players to Division-I football and for sending 14 players to the NFL.

Friday nights at Cass Tech find the football field vacant. Four light stanchions surround the stadium, but they see little action. Cass Tech slates most games for 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. start times — night games have become a safety risk.

Football isn’t the only way to escape the city, but this program has made its case. The boys don’t ask for much. For Will Campbell, Thomas Gordon, Teric Jones and Delonte Hollowell — four members of the Michigan football team — all they want is a chance.

“Just making it out of Detroit is a big deal, a bigger deal than football itself,” Jones said. “Just getting out of there and doing something with your life.

“I’ve seen a lot of guys who didn’t make it.”

Thomas Wilcher used to be one of these boys. He lived on these same streets, in the same neighborhoods. Since taking over as head coach at Cass Tech in 1997, he’s sent more than 25 players to Division-I.

Here, football allows one of the best chances at a more promising future.

Wilcher won 10 state titles at Central High in the early 1980s and set three state records in the hurdles. As a junior in 1981, he was the country’s top-ranked high hurdler. The next year, he was the nation’s No. 1 low hurdler.

Also an all-state tailback, the University of Michigan called. Recruited for track, he spent five years playing football for Bo Schembechler as a backup running back.

Wilcher encountered his first pupil as a sophomore at Michigan: a freshman running back named Jamie Morris.

“He was always a coach — he coached me,” Morris said. “All the young running backs learned from Wilch.”

Wilcher eventually settled in behind Morris on the depth chart, but Wilcher was hot on his tail.

“Oh my god, he could fly!” Morris said. “You ever see him run hurdles? Oh my god.”

Wilcher played in 49 games from 1983-86, gathering 758 yards and eight touchdowns. In track, he set school hurdling records, three of which still stand.

He trained for the Olympics after graduation at the University of Chicago Track Club but eventually returned to coaching. To Detroit.

There was one change. Instead of going back to Central, he went to another school less than five miles away: Cass Tech, where he started coaching track and football.

Wilcher may have graduated from Michigan, but he said he doesn’t steer kids to Michigan. He presents options. They make their own choices.

“People think he pressured me, Will or Teric to come here, but Wilcher was more relaxed and wanted us to make our own decision on where we wanted to go,” Gordon said.

It is the middle of summer, a July day where players aren’t forced to practice. Yet Wilcher stands in the Cass Tech tunnel and watches the scene unfold. His players are practicing. One, in particular, is trying to stay.

He’s on the phone with a parent, begging for his ride to show up later. He wants to run drills with his teammates. He wants to improve. He knows he needs to.

Years ago, it was Wilcher’s way out. Today, it is this player’s. Wilcher sees this and smiles.

This was the lesson he wants to teach. Accountability. He can do what he can, help them focus in certain academic studies, help them train in areas they need to improve. They believe because he was once there.

He’s been there. He’s gotten out.

“Coach Wilcher has been to the places that we want to go,” Jones said. “He’s got the closest you’ll find to a college program at a high school.”

Whatever it takes, he works alongside that kid until he steps onto a college campus as a freshman. And he doesn’t always pick his guys straight off the football field.

Sometimes he finds them in the halls of Cass Tech. And then he routes them to the NFL.

Back in 2002, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound man was wandering the halls. Wilcher thought he was a parent looking for his son or little brother.

“Anybody I can help you find?” the coach asked.

“No sir, I go here,” the man answered.

Except it wasn’t a man. It was a child who looked like one. Vernon Gholston was 14 years old.

Wilcher found Gholston some pads, and Gholston started his football career at offensive guard. Gholston’s raw power wasn’t enough at the varsity level, so he dropped down to junior varsity.

A sophomore, Gholston wasn’t tough enough for the junior varsity team.

“(JV coach Charleston Fobbs) told me, ‘He’s not tough enough,’ and kicked Vernon off the team. Sent him home,” Wilcher told Pro Football Weekly. “He swore at him a little bit, told him to get off the field and (not to) come back. Vernon left with his head hung low.”

Wilcher went to Gholston’s home and hauled him back to football.

By his senior season, Gholston was one of the country’s best players. Ohio State offered a scholarship first. Michigan last.

He picked the Buckeyes. Gholston, now a fourth-year NFL veteran, counted his three sacks of Chad Henne and Ryan Mallett on Nov. 17, 2007 as payback.

The next time a child Wilcher thought was a man walked by in 2006, he didn’t make another mistake. Neither did Michigan.

“I walked up to him and asked, ‘What school do you want to go to?’ Easy. ‘I want to go to Michigan,’ he said,” Wilcher said. “That’s where he wanted to go, so I laid out what it’ll take to go to Michigan.”

That’s how Wilcher found Will Campbell.

Campbell is a straight-shooter.

“Detroit’s more of a basketball town,” he said.

And it was on the hardcourt that Campbell found his future teammates playing basketball.

Campbell tried out for the basketball team at Cass Tech his freshman year. Alongside of him were Thomas Gordon and Teric Jones. They played basketball together and then joined track.

And then they joined up again with Wilcher.

As juniors, they played football together. They had a team. They didn’t have a home field.

The $2.5 million stadium completed with the new high school in 2005 was deemed unsuitable for play with fences too close to the field. So Cass, with all of its tradition and talent, played home games at King and Renaissance.

Players walked 15 minutes, past the Motor City Casino and along Grand River to practice at Pelham Middle School.

“The Cass Corridor is drugs, prostitution, the homeless and everything,” Jones said. “We used to make sure to walk as a team. We’d never walked alone. There’s strength in numbers, we showed that.

“We made sure nobody caught one of us, because we walked like a family.”

He stopped. Then he said it again.

“We really were a family,” Jones said. “It was beyond a brotherhood. People preach blood, sweat and tears, but we actually had experienced all of those. We fight like brothers, we play like brothers.”

They believe in family. What they may not realize is those trips — that family —would end up helping them save themselves.

Since breaking ground in 1907, the magnet school has saved the best football players in the area.

The names include Arnie Simkus, Tom Seabron, Harlan Huckleby, Curtis Greer and even Clarence Williams — all former NFL players that once passed from Cass Tech to Michigan.

“Coming from Cass and most importantly Detroit, there’s so much you can get into,” Gordon said.

He gave a small laugh.

“There’s a lot of stuff you can get into. If you just want to get out, you’ll do the necessary things to make it out of there.”

Football became their foundation. It’s a fairly common tale in inner cities around the United States — sports as salvation. Cass has been no different.

“I just feel like football itself just kept me out of all the things going on in the city and the neighborhood,” Jones said. “By the time I got out of practice it was eight o’clock, so I came home tired and didn’t have time to do anything negative, it was always positive and kept me motivated. I only had time for homework and practice.”

By senior year, Campbell, Gordon and Jones were finally at their home field. And they all held Division-I offers from Michigan. Gordon transitioned between quarterback and safety. Jones was the shifty feature back.

Campbell was the headliner, the five-star lineman recruit nearly every school in the country wanted.

“Will was the guy who stood out the most automatically because of his height and his talent,” Jones said. “Later on, me and Tom came into the picture.

“We all agreed we were going to play hungry no matter how much exposure we got. We were going to play like we were trying to make something out of our lives.”

The 56 lights slowly illuminated; Friday night lights were finally returning to Cass Tech on August 28, 2008.

Campbell, Gordon and Jones would finally play at home. At night. Nerves surrounded the day. They knew if one night game went well, they could get more.

Cass Tech fans showed up earlier than normal, over an hour before kickoff. That night’s opponent — Central. Wilcher’s alma mater.

“The thing about Detroit is that the students usually go to the game that is most promoted that week,” Jones said. “So this game was the season opener, we were both projected to do big things state-wide. Detroit Central was an up-and-coming team that was good.”

Cass Tech trounced the Trailblazers, 36-0. The crowd, there in part for the spectacle, stayed through the finish.

“We did what we wanted to do,” Jones said. “Playing a night game’s a big deal, can’t beat the feeling of the Friday night game.”

The attention was different.

During afternoon games, Cass Tech stands were almost empty. No home stadium and playing during the workday made it difficult in this working-class city.

“We felt like it was up to us to earn a crowd,” Jones said.

Cass Tech went 8-3 that season.

Three weeks after the Central night game after beating King — one of the schools Cass Tech used when its stadium was unplayable — Gordon made his decision.

He’d join Jones and go to Michigan.

They’d known for a while where they’d end up. But two kids from the inner city had to make sure nothing went unchecked.

“Me and Thomas actually opened our ACT scores together to see what we got — to see whether we could go to college,” Jones said. “Opening that letter is one of the best memories I have. That day, I walked around with it in my hands, thinking, ‘I got it.’ ”

They joined 15 other Cass Tech players, who left the Technicians to head an hour west to play for Michigan.

Campbell joined them following the season. This, though, wasn’t strange. They watched highly touted Boubacar Cissoko commit to Michigan a year earlier.

Boubacar Cissoko was part of the brotherhood at Cass Tech. As a small but promising cornerback, his quickness and agility quickly got attention from former Michigan coaches Lloyd Carr and Rich Rodriguez.

When Cissoko visited Michigan before committing, he brought Jones with him. They were friends. The Cass Tech bond doesn’t die when you get to Michigan.

As Campbell, Jones and Gordon arrived at Michigan, they thought they’d get three years with their friend. Instead, they got four games.

Rodriguez suspended Cissoko from the Michigan football team in October for violating team rules twice.

Five months later, on March 13, 2010, Cissoko — who once carried the alias Michael Bryant — was arrested on three counts of larceny after robbing two pizza deliverymen in Ann Arbor. Then he stole money from a cab driver in Ypsilanti, Mich. later that night.

A month later, he held up a different cab driver in Ypsilanti with a pellet gun.

Less than a week before his sentencing, records show he was accused of assaulting a sergeant and two officers at the Washtenaw County Jail.

Cissoko was released from jail and paroled on June 14, 2011 with 18 months probation. Jones hasn’t spoken to him since his release.

“I knew Boubacar, he was a good person,” Jones said. “He helped me through a lot of situations. He made a mistake; it wasn’t an inner-city mindset, it was a mistake. Coach Wilcher said, ‘Be men on the field and off.’ I figure that was a man’s decision, and he decided to do wrong.”

But Wilcher knows the difficulty of the transition to life in Ann Arbor.

In February 1985, Wilcher ran into some trouble following an intramural basketball game and was handed 72 hours of public service and a fine for his involvement.

But no one was ready for May 5, 2011. Not in the Cass Corridor, not in Ann Arbor.

The reports are unclear as to why former Cass Tech running back Cortez Smith was outside Envy nightclub that Thursday night. Some people say he was posting flyers about a future party at the club on parked cars and got into an argument. Others say he was just there picking up friends.

Ten minutes before midnight, Smith was shot once in the chest and once in the head during an altercation with five men on Larned Street. He died instantly, just five minutes down Woodward Avenue from Cass Tech.

Smith had been Jones’s mentor in the backfield.

“The situation with Cortez hit me real hard,” Jones said, fighting back his emotions. “Coming in 10th grade from little league (football), just learning from him was the best thing ever. He taught me a lot of things — how to read holes and what to look for.

“It was an unfortunate mistake — wrong place, wrong time.”

The 2008 Cass Tech team has several players in Division-I football — four to Michigan, one to Indiana, two more to Indiana State. It also had one highly touted player serve a prison sentence and another murdered since they left.

Smith had gone outright to Indiana as a freshman, but decided to return to the city and attend Wayne State after being suspended by the Hoosiers for misconduct off the field early in his freshman year.

“(Cortez) had a bright future,” Wilcher told The South End, Wayne State’s student newspaper. “People gravitated toward him. I saw a picture on Facebook of my son when he was a freshman and he was dressed up just like Cortez. It’s kind of funny, you never know how people are touched by others.”

This wasn’t the first time violence had affected these players, but it certainly was the first time they’d lost a teammate. That wasn’t supposed to happen to the brotherhood.

But the city got him first.

“It’s another man down,” Gordon said.

Gordon looked down to his feet, shaking his head.

“We all feel for Cortez, we miss Cortez and BooBoo, too. We’ve just got to carry on for them, we’ve got to put on for them.”

“We grieved for him,” Jones said. “But now it’s time to put our grief to work, use that as motivation for something better. I know Cortez wouldn’t want us to sit here and cry for him, he’d want us to go on the field and show him what we can do. I think the Cass Tech guys believe in each other more than anybody.”

It is late July and Wilcher waits under the bleachers for his players to be picked up. Practice is over and dust from the neighboring parking lot clouds the air.

Wilcher glances left toward Cass Tech’s historic building. Demolition crews are slowly destroying it.

Reduced to little more than rubble, the 10-story building was built in 1919, billed as “the most beautiful, most efficient, and safest high school in existence.” It’s always housed the best minds. Even today, Detroit students take a test in eighth grade to determine which high school they attend — Cass Tech, Renaissance or King.

The old school fell by the wayside. What was once the best and brightest in the city became worn and ragged. Conditions slowly deteriorated inside the building.

The balcony of the auditorium had to be closed in the 1990s, most rooms on the top floors soon after. The Cass Corridor cropped up around the school. And the brilliant brick façade began to fade.

A microcosm of the city of Detroit, the school has seen the best and worst of times. And instead of rebuilding the old, they’ve opted for a new beginning.

In 2005, Cass Tech’s new school opened directly adjacent to the old. Campbell, Gordon and Jones were part of the first class to spend all four years there.

The new building has the feeling of an airport, standing three stories tall and sleek as can be. A large Michigan flag is draped over the railing over the second-floor atrium. Thirty yards across the tile floor, a large “Go State” banner stretches across the windows.

The school’s motto is emblazoned around the new building: Cass Tech #1, second to none.

Meanwhile, the old building stood idle. Some wanted the building to sit unchanged, like so much of the city, as a historical monument. Others asked to renovate it.

But vandals and a fire that gutted the lower three floors put an end to that conversation. When demolition seemed inevitable, some held on hope that a baseball field or track would be built.

“The demolition is a good thing, but a sad thing,” Jones said. “I think all the Cass Tech alumni believe it’s not what’s in the bricks, but it’s what’s in the person.”

By the end of August the building is gone.

But the atmosphere at Cass Tech is the same. It’s all academics and football, students working for every chance they get.

Wilcher knows it’s a balancing act. The city as a whole is trying to wrestle away its demons and not rebuild city’s former lore, but replace it.

“They’re pushing academics in Detroit very hard in all the schools,” Wilcher said. “Every school around is trying to get to the level of Cass Tech. They’re trying to make sure that in all the schools around here kids are excited to be here in Detroit.

“It’s a new era in Detroit.”

The sun begins to set on the Cass Corridor, and Wilcher shifts his gaze away from the demolition site.

He smacks a freshman linebacker on the shoulder pad.

“Where are you going to college?” he asks.

“I’m goin’ down to Florida,” is the answer.

“Florida, huh?” Wilcher laughs. “Alright, we’re going to do what it takes to get you there.

And everyone believes him. He’s got a proven track record.

“I look around and I see a lot of All-Americans here,” Wilcher said, looking down to a list of seven players he’s sent to Michigan, beginning with running back Clarence Williams in the late 1990s. “I think that’s where they wanted to go. The kids always wanted to go there, I just helped them fulfill their dream.”

The first Cass Tech player to go to Michigan left in 1918. Archie Jordan started the trend. Two more Cass Tech players, cornerback Terry Richardson and linebacker Royce Jenkins-Stone, will become the 20th and 21st players to make that move when they sign letters of intent in February.

That Brady Hoke’s first class at Michigan would include Cass Tech players is fitting. The school with the coach who played under Schembechler has become a recent pipeline to Ann Arbor.

“Once the younger guys started coming in, they realized that we were a school that was bringing talent in (to Cass Tech),” Jones said. “We brought guys like Dior Mathis in, Terry Richardson in and Royce (Jenkins-Stone). We brought them in from little league and took them under our wing.

“Terry and Dior always used to tell me, ‘I’m going to college.’ And I told them, ‘Sometimes you’re going to get discouraged because you’re smaller guys, but just come work out with me.’ ”

Mathis is at Oregon. Richardson committed to Michigan.

At Cass Tech, they have become aware of one thing: This is the way out, be it down the road to Ann Arbor or across the country to Eugene, Ore.

“I just think it gives me a chance to succeed in life farther than the football field, with academics too,” Gordon said. “And not be another statistic from the city.”

Depression, poverty and urban decay surround them. Buildings on almost every block sit abandoned — reminders of a once-vibrant community since departed.

The sleeping bag is a reminder of the thin line between playing inside their stadium and sleeping on the top row of it.

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