By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 8, 2011
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.
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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.