Under the bright lights on a cold November Friday, the Panthers of River Rouge High are about to play for the district championship.
On the other side of the field, the visitors’ stands are packed. The River Rouge side is pretty empty as the Panthers take the field.
The Panthers’ head coach, Corey Parker, is used to this. He works it into his pregame speech.
“All we have is us!” he shouts, as his players bounce with nervous energy. “Fight for each other, love each other, let’s go get it Rouge!”
Love. Right there under the lights, right before the biggest game of the year, is a window into this educator’s philosophy and his unusual approach to molding young men through a sport many think of as violent. Love. Right now, though, he’s got a game to win.
The Panthers kick off. The first quarter is a struggle. On offense, there’s a string of dropped passes. On defense, Parker pulls out a senior defensive player, Miles Campbell, to talk gap assignments.
“Lower your body,” Parker tells him. “They’re running right inside of you!”
As they talk, their opponents, the Ida Bluestreaks, march in for the game’s first touchdown.
On the sideline, the Panthers look disorganized, hurt and angry. The clock winds down at halftime with the team trailing by 2.
Industry And Poverty
River Rouge is a tough place to grow up — just south of Detroit, it’s blocked in on one side by an oil refinery. On the other side are a steel plant and a power plant.
The neighborhoods are marked by broken homes, poverty and violence.
Parker knows these streets — he grew up in Detroit in a neighborhood much like this one. Football is what got him out, first to a private high school, and then to Eastern Michigan University.
He came to River Rouge High in in 2009. Immediately, he put a new focus on academics. I talked with him about this at a team practice about a week before the big game.
“When I got here, you had so many guys that made the decision to be the thug, the gangbanger,” he recalls. “And those were the best athletes in the building. And they always played and started here. … I said, ‘I’m gonna change all of that.’ ”
The change is noticeable.
At practice a week before, I talked with Campbell. He’s captain and a leader on the team. He tells me he grew up in River Rouge, but when he first got to high school, his parents decided to send him outside the city for his education.
Then, he says, he and his parents watched as Parker built up his football program, with a new focus on academics and college-readiness. That’s what brought him back to River Rouge.
I ask him: “So is Coach Parker talking to you about college?”
“Yes,” Campbell says, smiling. “Every day, all day. That’s his first focus.”
Parker has sacrificed team practice time for more study hall. He makes decisions on who starts the Friday-night games based on GPA.
Last year, Parker says, nine out of 14 graduating seniors earned football scholarships to college. In a school where fewer than two-thirds of young men graduate on time, the football team’s GPA this fall was just shy of 3.0.
Campbell says the coach’s focus is relentless. “Coach Parker got a lot of ambition,” he explains. “He just want to help kids, just help all these boys become men. Because there’s a lot of them, if they didn’t have football, they wouldn’t have nothing.”
There is one story about Parker’s dedication that seems to rise above the rest. It’s about one of his former players, Angelo Whittis.
“When I was younger, I used to play football to take my anger out,” Whittis says. “It was a pain reliever.”
He tells me he never knew his father. His mother was in and out of prison. By high school, he was basically homeless, sleeping on friends’ couches, sleeping in cars. But at school, he always kept a smile on his face.
“I never wanted to let nobody know that I was depressed, or what I was going through at home,” he recalls. “So I’d be depressed for days, thinking about suicide.”
These thoughts eventually caught up with him, and he acted. He took pills. He cut his wrists.
Parker knew a bit about what Whittis had been going through. He’d given the student a few rides home after practice and noticed he’d been going to different houses every day. Parker left extra food in a fridge at school for Whittis, and it always got eaten.
When Whittis attempted suicide, Parker called his wife, Autumn Parker, who was in medical school at the time at a nearby hospital. She gave him the update. Whittis would survive. He got help.
But two months later, Coach Parker got another call. This time, Whittis had been arrested for stealing a bike so he could get money for food.
That’s when Parker and his wife had a conversation. He asked her, ” ‘What do you want to do?’ ” And, he recalls, her response was, ” ‘Corey, we have to do something.’ “
So the Parkers took Angelo Whittis in. They adopted him.
“Got my first bed I ever slept in my whole life,” Whittis says. “Got clothes. So I mean, once they started doing all that, I’m thinking to myself, I can’t just up and leave. This family really cares about me.”
Whittis graduated from high school. Now he’s in college on a football scholarship. The man he used to call Coach, he now calls Dad.
On the first drive of the second half, the River Rouge defense makes a stop.
And from then on, everything goes the Panthers’ way.
They score first to take the lead. When Ida gets the ball, Campbell forces a fumble. Parker can’t contain himself.
“That’s my boys! That’s my boys! YEAH!” he shouts from the sidelines.
Final score: Ida 14, River Rouge 42.
He’s delighted with the win, but he knows that what he’s about is so much more than that.
The following week, in the next round of the playoffs, River Rouge would lose. The season ended.
When I sat down again with Parker, he seemed ready for the offseason. There’s more time for study hall, he told me. He stays engaged with his players 11 months out of the year. His only time off is around the holidays.
It’s not just a commitment. It’s a devotion.
I finally get around to mentioning something that’s been on my mind since I first met Parker and got to know his players. It’s the idea that football, in the end, is just a game.
I asked him about it: “I think of you often when I hear people say this, that football’s just a game.”
“Oh, no way,” he says, laughing. “No way. Football around here is a tool. It’s a vehicle. It’s a backbone, if you’ve never had it. If no man has ever told you that they love you. It’s a good, strong backbone to let you know you are good enough, you are strong enough, you are smart enough to do anything you want in this world. To have vision, to have foresight, to have dreams. … That’s what football is.”
It’s a version of football different from the one that will be broadcast around the world this weekend. It’s not the version advertisers fight over each other to support.
But it’s the version that perhaps most has the potential to change lives, change communities.
It’s the version that got a kid like him, a kid from a rough neighborhood on the east side of Detroit, through college. And it’s the version he’ll use to do the same for his players.