DAYTON, Ohio –
We’re a movin’ on up,
To the east side.
To a de — luxe apartment
In the sky —
Movin’ on up
To the east side,
We finally got a piece of the pie.
Coach Daryl McCleskey leans out of the driver’s-side window of his white conversion van, casually referencing “The Jeffersons” theme song as he talks about his Pee-Wee football team. He is parked on the Hickorydale Elementary School field, which has looked the same for years even though the school itself was torn down long ago. The Pee-Wee Dayton Flames play in ragtag practice jerseys, the eight- and nine-year-old kids hollering as they hit each other. A tinny song blares from the speakers of a nearby beat-up ice cream truck, and an orange water cooler rests on the hood of a rusted pickup truck parked next to the team.
Movin’ on up in Dayton actually means moving about 15 minutes northwest. Turn left on Shiloh Springs Road and you suddenly find yourself driving through the middle-to-lower class, predominantly black suburb of Trotwood, Ohio, with cornfields and tall grass hugging both sides of the street. Speed down another little two-lane country road and there’s nothing more to see until a sprawling high school comes into view, complete with a brand-new football stadium that would make a small college team envious.
That high school and that city are a step up the ladder, a place you can go to sleep at night with peace of mind, McCleskey says. But he almost resents that.
“A lot of blacks moved to Trotwood when they were successful in their lives,” he says. “They were more well off than the kids right here in Dayton, and they acted like it out there. A little more uppity.”
His bitterness stems from the way people treated the Dayton Flames. He’s quick to praise the accomplishments of his underdog team, boasting about its last Pee-Wee Super Bowl championship like a proud parent. But he says that much of the city’s best athletes left to go play in the suburbs, and Trotwood stole the glory after Dayton coaches developed the kids’ talent.
The fact is, Roy Roundtree and Mike Shaw wouldn’t be playing for Michigan today if they hadn’t experienced the best of both cities. They played for the Flames from the first grade to junior high. Soon after, both moved to Trotwood in order to play at Trotwood-Madison High School, a known college football factory led by a coach whose charismatic mentoring charmed nearly everyone in — and who wished they were in — the Trotwood-Madison family.
“Family” is a word they use liberally in both Dayton and Trotwood, a common thread that stretches through the entire area’s tight-knit football community. The Dayton Flames coaches were like Roundtree and Shaw’s fathers, and Trotwood-Madison coach Maurice Douglass might as well have been the boys’ big brother. Candidness and closeness were the norm — the players were “all in” without ever needing to coin it as a team slogan.
Roundtree and Shaw may have kept movin’ on up all the way to Ann Arbor, but they still remembered exactly where they came from.
Mike Shaw still watches the videotape almost every time he comes back home. It’s of a seven- or eight-year-old Roy Roundtree, running a go route during a Flames football practice. Roundtree is so intent on trying to catch the ball that he doesn’t notice the coach’s burgundy van in front of him, and he runs into the back of it, falling to the ground. After a second, he jumps up, the football still in his hand after a perfect catch. “I got it! I got it!” he squeals.
Brian Carter, Roundtree’s former Pee-Wee coach, has a basement full of old trophies and photos. In one of those photos is Roundtree on the day he showed up to a game with his face covered in bright white face powder, his eyes blacked out and paint covering his arms. It was Halloween, and he played football that day wearing full skull makeup and his orange Flames uniform.
As a freshman in high school, when Roundtree was named the Dayton Daily News’ Athlete of the Week, the wide receiver talked in an interview about how his on- and off-the-field Pee-Wee experience had shaped him more than his experience in junior high or high school ever could.
“I had to pull over and get myself together when I read that article,” Carter said, shaking his head. “Because it really touched me. When you run an organization like this, you get kind of burned out. And that article put about 10 more years in me.”
At first, nostalgia seems to dominate these Pee-Wee memories. But Shaw and Roundtree’s six years with the organization were far from kid stuff. The coaches told Shaw’s father, Michael, that the only way the six-year-old could start playing for them was if his parents bought him his own football equipment — the team didn’t have enough money to provide for one more player.
Their league games were played about an hour south, in the Cincinnati area. They traveled to games as far away as Panama City, Fla., and Atlanta, when the team competed for national championships. Most of the kids had never seen the beach before, so Coach Carter showed them the white, sandy beaches and clear water.
Home games were daylong affairs on Saturdays. Locals who had no kids or relatives on the teams would still stop by the games and pay to see the Flames play. The crowd filled both sidelines of the pot-holed field as if the people were watching a Friday night high school game in the next suburb over.
“Around here, Pee-Wee is like religious,” Michael Shaw, Mike’s father, said. “Everybody takes it pretty seriously and wants to go to a Super Bowl and win a championship.”
“To me, they were like professionals,” said Sheila Roundtree, Roy’s mother.
They might as well have been, with the intensity of their seasons. Shaw and Roundtree played on separate teams, since Roundtree, eight months older than Shaw, played one age group ahead. They practiced every weekday during the last half of summer and three days a week once school started. Back then, the team played in the coveted league Super Bowl game for five straight years, twice coming away with the golden football trophy.
The kids learned how to play physically and aggressively, with a tenacity that allowed even the tiny Roundtree to hit guys one-and-a-half times his size while playing offensive and defensive tackle. They learned from their coaches that timidness was unacceptable and toughness was mandatory.
Shaw found that out when he was about nine years old. On a routine carry, a kid from the other team ran up to Shaw, wrenched the ball out of his hands and ran to the other end zone for a touchdown. Shaw started to cry as his coach gave him an earful.
“Why’d you let him do that?” the coach yelled. “You owe me two touchdowns for that.”
The Flames were losing at the half. Shaw, done crying, suddenly marched into the halftime huddle.
“They’re gonna start paying for all this dirt they did to us in the first half,” he angrily told his team. “They’re gonna pay. They’re gonna pay.”
And Shaw meant it. He scored four touchdowns in the second half to help the Flames win the game, leaving his parents and coaches to marvel at how he turned his anger into successful revenge.
“Football is not a powderpuff sport,” the 19-year-old Mike Shaw now says, “and the coaches made us tougher because they were on us. They were hard. They got us ready.”
TROTWOOD, Ohio – Listening to Maurice Douglass talk about the high school athletes he coaches, you would almost think they were lazy.
“They live in this fake world where their parents normally have really good jobs and they have parents who have been to college and things like that, so they don’t know how to really work,” said Douglass, gesturing to his players as he stood on the sideline of the Trotwood-Madison High School practice field. “They’ve never had to work for anything.”
That’s why Coach Doug sees it as his job to educate these kids, holding “in-school suspensions” where he can teach them about issues they haven’t yet run into while living in this middle-class suburb.
“We’re talking about girls today,” he says, switching into lecture mode as if he’s talking to one of his players. “You want the girl that’s in the back of the classroom but she’s got a four-point average. We don’t want girls that have one-point averages but a great body. ‘Cause she just going to take your money in the end, you know? So we want the girl who doesn’t look like the diamond right now. She looks like a lump of coal. But if we fine-tune her, she’ll turn into a diamond.”
He’s seen enough of the real world to tell his kids how off-the-field issues like girls, drugs or alcohol can influence a young athlete. After graduating from Trotwood High School in 1982, Douglass played defensive back at Kentucky and then went on to play 11 NFL seasons with the Chicago Bears and New York Giants. And when that was all over, he came back to where he started.
When Douglass began coaching at Trotwood in 2001, he made it a priority to transform the football program. He worked for hours after the team’s practices so that he could painstakingly patch together and send out highlight tapes of his players, answer stacks of mail from college recruiters and take his athletes on college tours. The offers started rolling in, and so did the transfer students — Trotwood-Madison had one of the highest incoming transfer rates in the state as athletes flocked him to play ball.
The results were obvious. Douglass estimates Trotwood sent 97 kids to play college football in seven years, 35 of them to Division-1 schools. It was general knowledge around Trotwood that if the kids took care of their grades, Coach Doug would help them get into college.
Meanwhile, Shaw was enrolled in Archbishop Alter High School, the private Catholic school that his father, aunts and uncles had attended. It was big on tradition, and its coaching was more by-the-book and regimented than Douglass’s laid-back mentoring style. Shaw was a star on the football team, and Alter lost in the Ohio state championship game by just one point when Shaw was a junior. But as Shaw faced his last high school season, he had yet to receive even one college scholarship offer. He felt like he was being sold short.
Roundtree was attending Belmont High School in the city. During the 2004-05 school year, when he was a freshman, Belmont was classified as an “academic emergency” by the state of Ohio. Over a quarter of the students were considered to be “students with disabilities”, and the school average on standardized tests was over 50 percent lower than the state benchmarks. The academics were dismal and the football team was just mediocre.
Both started looking around for a better place to play ball. Roundtree reached out, naturally, to his old quarterback from the Flames — one of his best friends, Domonick Britt, the Trotwood-Madison quarterback who was already getting attention from Cincinnati and Jackson State. Douglass was also interested in Roundtree’s ability, so the wide receiver decided to make the jump.
Shaw looked at two other schools besides Trotwood-Madison but ultimately joined Roundtree and Britt a few months later, in the second semester of his junior year. The Flames were together again, and the scholarships started coming in almost too fast to be true. Within a month and a half of transferring, Shaw had already received offers from schools like Clemson and Nebraska.
“To this day, I don’t get it,” Shaw’s father, Michael, said. “I’m like, ‘What the — ? You haven’t even stepped on the field yet!’ I don’t know what the difference is. I couldn’t tell you. But it’s like night and day.”
Shaw verbally committed to Penn State and Roundtree to Purdue. But on Signing Day, both had second thoughts. While Shaw and his parents were inside Douglass’s office late that morning, agonizing over signing with the tradition-rich, Joe Paterno-led Nittany Lions or a Michigan team with a new, exciting coach but an uncertain future, Roundtree sidled past the office wearing a maize-and-blue hat.
“Roy’s going to Michigan!” Shaw told his parents, shocked. He chose the Wolverines a few hours later. The two joined their Trotwood-Madison teammate Brandon Moore, who had never wavered from his original commitment to Michigan a year before he signed.
Roundtree likes to joke now that he played a big part in Shaw’s last-second decision, but the wide receiver’s own last-minute college switch ended up generating the largest buzz. It prompted slighted Purdue coach Joe Tiller to infamously comment that Rodriguez was a “guy in a wizard hat selling snake oil,” luring players like Roundtree from places they had originally committed.
But Coach Douglass was convicted of peddling some snake oil of his own just as the boys were poised to graduate from high school. Neighboring high school players and coaches accused Trotwood-Madison of illegally recruiting their best athletes. The Dayton Meadowdale High School coach accused Douglass of improperly recruiting Shaw in particular, telling the Dayton Daily News in 2007 that the idea that Shaw would have decided on his own to leave the successful Alter team for Trotwood-Madison was “off-the-wall stuff”.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association investigated the allegations and found that Douglass and his staff had persuaded students to switch teams, and that some of the transferred students had never actually moved into the district. Douglass was suspended from coaching for three weeks in 2008, and his offensive coordinator stepped down. The program received two years’ probation.
But by then, Roundtree and Shaw were gone, preparing with Moore for a new life in Ann Arbor.
It didn’t take long for their new team to have problems, too. Compared to their past football families, the Wolverines were more impersonal and their flaws much more exposed. Some of Shaw, Roundtree and Moore’s new teammates didn’t buy into Rich Rodriguez’s vision of the brand-new spread offense. Roundtree and Moore were redshirted. Shaw scored the Wolverines’ first touchdown in their first game of the year, but struggled with the rest of the team during the remainder of the 3-9 season.
As the Michigan “family” started to fall apart, Coach Douglass called the three every couple of weeks to tell them to keep their heads up – and, in typical big-brother fashion, to make sure they didn’t get mixed up in things they shouldn’t.
“ ‘How’s school going? How are you dealing with being a scout team guy?’ ” Douglass said, recounting a typical conversation. “That freshman year, that redshirt year was a tough year for those guys. And then Mike, him getting a chance to play and him fumbling the ball a couple times, his self-esteem was getting low.”
In that unfamiliar situation, playing for a losing team in a town three and a half hours north of home, high school teammates Shaw, Roundtree and Moore stuck with what they knew — each other. They signed an apartment lease together for sophomore year because they knew exactly what they were getting themselves into.
The night before this year’s spring game, the first chance for Roundtree to showcase his talent in front of a large audience in Ann Arbor, he told Shaw that he really wanted to come out strong the next day. Shaw told him, “You can do it. We’ve been doing it since first grade.”
The next day, in front of the 50,000 spring-game watchers, Roundtree scored two touchdowns. Sure, it was only the spring game. But one of those routes he ran was the exact same he had run in Trotwood-Madison’s spread offense. Coach Doug was in attendance and immediately recognized Roundtree’s play.
A juke to the inside, past the safety, running in the end zone to catch a 50-yard bomb.
He had been taught well.