On Wednesday afternoon, the Detroit PAL (Police Athletic League), a non-profit organization that runs one of the biggest youth football leagues in the country with over 80 teams and 22 organizations, came to Ann Arbor to spend the day at Michigan with the coaches and players. The focus for this event was the younger kids, primarily middle school aged.
LB Royce Jenkins-Stone (holding helmet) and freshman S Delano Hill (middle) posed with the members of their former PAL team, the Tigers.
The commissioner of PAL's football program, Darnell Hall, was excited to finally execute a plan with Michigan that had been in the works since at least June of this year.
"(Michigan's Director of Player Personnel) Chris (Singletary) and I have been in contact for a long time. My main goal at Detroit PAL is to not only have good relationships with the high schools, but the major universities as well," Hall noted. The PAL group also recently took a visit to East Lansing to see Michigan State for their first annual "Youth Day". "Chris gave me a call a while back and wanted to know if the kids could come up and see a practice. They looked through their roster over the off-season and noticed that a lot of the kids who are on the team now came through our program and they decided to get a hold of me to start this up. We ran three buses. We notified the teams that the kids participated on and ended up bringing over about eight organizations and over 100 kids."
Hall believes the visit validated a lot of what the program is about as both the product of it and the future were able to come together for a day and share a special bond.
"I trained a lot of these kids and counseled them when they were younger. To see them and see the youth team they played for in their stadium, you could see both parties light up immediately," Hall said. "I think it's one of those things that you need to be a part of to understand what it really means. It confirms to me that you're doing the right thing. Chris and I made a pact a long time ago that we would do what we could to help these kids get out of the city because that's where we came from. To see the looks on the faces of someone like Devin (Gardner) or (Dennis) Norfleet when they saw their old teams there. It was amazing. All the players spoke to every last kid. It was a friendly atmosphere. The players treated these kids like they were their little brothers."
"It really started when they got off the bus. The second they got out, the players walked out of Schembechler Hall and met us and walked the kids down to the Big House, which was amazing in itself. You could see the looks in the kids' eyes as they made that walk. It was breathtaking. Today, I think our kids really need to see that. It's going to give them hope. It's going to give them a chance to say "we can dream again" and that dreams do come true."
For the Michigan program, it's an opportunity to give back to a city and area that has been good to the Wolverines. Singletary, a Detroit native himself, helped cultivate this relationship with Hall and PAL over the past few seasons and over the summer, saw an opportunity to expand upon it.
"We've been going down there to Detroit before spring ball starts for the last three years and hold a clinic for the youth league coaches and talk some football," he noted. "We go down there to help make them better coaches and to let them know that being so close to the city that we're always going to be there. Not only for the players, but for the coaching staff and the city in general. We wanted to expand on that this season and let the kids themselves see Michigan first hand."
Coach Hoke directing PAL coaches on head tackling.
The visit also provided a unique opportunity for the players who have come through the program to meet some new young faces and take on that role of a mentor or leader. Fifteen current Wolverines went through the PAL program, including Devin Gardner, Devin Funchess, James Ross III and Jourdan Lewis among others.
"Every kid that we have on our team from Detroit outside of Csont'e (York) and (David) Dawson played little league football in Detroit," Singletary said. "From the standpoint of those guys knowing each other in high school and now college, it's more than that. These players have been playing with each other since they were little kids. It's about having a bond at an early age and that's huge. For them to get the opportunity to see kids that played in their organization now on the big stage not only in football but academically as well, they realize that it's not out of reach. They can see tangible role models that are doing what they want to do. They can be guys that the kids can reach out to get and get advice to get to where these guys are at. To see Devin Gardner doing what he's doing; that's huge for these young kids."
Learning to become a role model is not a task completed overnight, however. For the players, it's an adjustment to know that you're being looked at on a bigger level and it's something the team and those Detroit players specifically have learned from both sides of the coin this week.
"There's always someone watching. There's always the next young man coming up from where you came from wanting to emulate you and do what you're doing," he said. "It's a matter of giving back. It's a lot like the message Tom (Brady) gave the team today. It's like climbing the ladder. Earlier this week, they are giving back to the kids telling them I used to be where you are. Today, it's Tom telling our players that he used to sit in those same chairs that they're sitting in. It's all about a brotherhood and passing that torch. It's about letting players know about hope and that it's out there. You can pave your own path. Seeing someone who is in your position that has done it makes it easier to give yourself the confidence that you can do it yourself."