I left my home town to secure a spot on the University of Miami's football team
We needed a big play to win the game.
My school in Chicago (Kenwood) was up 23-20 against our rival Simeon academy high school in the state playoffs. It was an intense game with both teams going into the game undefeated. The local press had counted us out, making comments such as “Kenwood is going lose” and how “we haven't had any real competition yet this season.”
It was the 4th quarter, and I was praying the quarterback would throw the ball to me. Luckily, he did, and I jumped up, took the ball out of the air, and ran it back for a touchdown, leading my team to a win.
Little did I know that would be my last time winning in high school football in Illinois.
Earlier that week, I had come up to Michigan for a Rising Stars football camp. I was proud of my performance. I guarded the best player at the camp, who had not been stopped all day until I showed up. Everyone was congratulating me, and I even won MVP of the camp followed by seven interviews, with multiple recruiting centers such as rivals, ESPN, and 247 sports. My performance led to a further conversation about me staying in Michigan to finish my senior season here.
At this time in July, due to Covid-19, the Governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, wasn't permitting fall sports for high schools. I was conflicted because I knew my senior year was essential to gather film for college recruitments. My dad moved up to Birmingham, Michigan about five years ago. My mom, sister, and I were all supposed to move with him but decided against it due to my grandmother being ill. However, five years later, here I was moving. Aside from leaving my mom and sister, I felt good about the move to Birmingham. I wanted to know that they were safe, and I almost felt like I was abandoning them. The move was very bad at first. I couldn’t just focus on football I was more focused on their safety and just missing them constantly. Both my sister and mom are pretty self-sufficient, but I didn't want to leave them. When I got comfortable with the fact that they were safe, I felt great relief and could now focus on football.
The week of September 14th, I visited multiple schools. I went to Cass Tech, West Bloomfield, Southfield A&T, and North Farmington. Lastly, on September 16th, I visited Groves. I loved all the schools, but each had something I wanted that was missing. Cass Tech was my first option. I had known the whole coaching staff since I was in 8th grade. Specifically, the head coach Thomas Wilcher communicated daily when he found out I was moving to Michigan. He told me every day how bad he wanted me to be in his program. The problem with me going to the school was that I had to take an entrance exam to get in. I would've had to miss some games of my senior year if I went there. It wasn't the best situation for me. The visits to West Bloomfield and Southfield A&T were also great, but they only had limited spots for transfers. My cousin and my little brother were coming with me. That wasn't the best situation for me either, Because they were looking at me as someone that can play right away but not looking at my cousin and brother in the same way.
Out of all the schools I visited, Groves stole my heart right away. It was almost as good as a Disney movie. I automatically felt a familiar and family vibe. The whole team welcomed my brother Diego, my cousin Kaleb and me with open arms and made us feel wanted. I felt very comfortable; I knew it was the place for me to go after the first conversation and after the first practice. I attended every practice the week after my visit. Practice was rocking, and the energy was incredible. The part that I truly loved the most was that there was music playing throughout the practice. I know that sounds very silly, but the type of music just attracted me to the program. I felt like I could be myself there.
My first conversation with Groves football head coach Flaherty (Coach Flare) was refreshing. It was energizing to hear someone be genuine and caring and hold you accountable. He talked about how at Groves, you will play if you work hard and do the right things. He told me how nothing would be given to me, but I could earn everything I wanted. That conversation made me feel at home because that interaction reminded me of how my pops talked to me about life; it made me instantly comfortable and confident in Coach Flare.
The same week I had yet another memorable conversation with a player named Stavros (Stavi) Panos. We talked about how Diego, Kaleb, and I were needed for the team and all. That the team was excellent in every other aspect, but they were missing the position I played, which is Defensive back. It was music to my ears because when I was told by a player that I know wouldn't lie to me about being wanted and having an opportunity on the team and play. As the conversation progressed, Stavi talked about how excited he was that if we do come, he can strictly focus on offense. Throughout the whole practice, I was Stavi's shadow. I followed him everywhere, and our relationship was great from the start. We talked about more than football: life, school, and what colleges we wanted to attend. Stavi asked me about what colleges have offered me a full-ride scholarship for football. I was considering Boston College, the University of Houston, and Washington state.
By the end of practice, I was comfortable with the team after being introduced to everyone and welcomed. I went home, ate dinner, then went to the basement and sat on the couch and thought about my decision. The next morning I woke up, prayed to god, went upstairs, and ate my favorite cereal: Fruity pebbles marshmallows. Coach Flare told us to come to the next practice and start to learn the playbook and just how practice was operated. I drove up to practice and arrived at 3:30. That week I was not officially enrolled at Groves and didn't have to attend school, which made me happy. At practice, when I showed up, Coach Flare told me to watch the defensive film with the team, and that is when I started to get comfortable with the team. Stavi took me around the school and showed me the training room, and I began to get excited because I have never had a training room. That practice started great and I knew I wanted to make it official. On Wednesday, September 15th, after spectating a second practice with the team, I realized Groves was my future. Groves was so unique from all the other schools I visited. I had established a great relationship with all the guys off the bat and saw much potential. I informed my dad of my decision, and he was super supportive. He helped me fill out all the papers and get me on track to play football again. On the day of my first practice for the team, nervous, anxious, and excited emotions filled my head.
I remember pulling up to my first practice with my pads already on. I showed up early so that Coach Salts could fit me for my helmet. I have a big head, so I used to have waves as my hairstyle, which means less hair takes up less space. I wore a large helmet size with waves, so I was a little worried I would get a super ugly helmet. I expected to get an XL with having hair, but I didn't want that because I am super big in my appearance. I am very self-centered. If I feel like I look bad, then my attitude will be off but, if I feel like a million bucks, I'll play like it. This is why I take a lot of time and effort in looking good on and off the field. Thankfully, Coach Salts let me slide and gave me a large helmet. On September 17th, I was admitted into Groves. The MHSAA safety rule says that a student has to attend three practices before a game. This meant I would miss the team's first game against Farmington. My first practice was the following Monday. I was super excited that whole weekend just knowing I would be able to play the sport I love again. It made me appreciate everything about the sport, even the most minor details, because football was almost taken away from me. I just was so delighted I felt like everything in the world was perfect like I had just won a million dollars, I felt like a kid at a candy store. I almost had a panic attack during the first practice when I was putting on my shoulder pads. I couldn't breathe through the excitement.
Later that week, on September 25th, Rochester Adams came to my new home field. I get nervous before every game, but it being my first game with a new team, the butterflies in my stomach had multiplied. I felt almost out of place. Groves senior Orion Kendra kicked the ball, and the game started. I sat on the bench until Adams got the ball for the second time. When I was subbed, my thoughts were racing. It was weird playing for a new team and in unfamiliar colors. In Chicago, I was always number nine. However, Jackson Tinsley had taken it. Luckily, number 20 looked good on me. I embraced the new number because it was a fresh start. I wasn't making any plays and felt isolated on the field because I wasn't a part of any action. Typically when I make contact with someone right away, my nerves go away, but since I played for a new team, I had to create a good reputation. I felt weird throughout the whole game until the 3rd quarter when I made my 1st big play and intercepted the ball from Adams. This play regained my confidence, and I felt back in my Groove. Despite being in a new state, I felt at home. The score is 18-24; Adams is currently winning with 4:47 minutes left in the game. Our defense needed to stop getting our offense the ball back so they could score and tie the game or better take the lead. It was 3rd down and 8 yards to go. My teammates and I knew that if we stopped the ball carrier before the 1st down, they would punt and give the ball to our offense. The ball is snapped, and the running back gets the 1st down. Everyone was upset, but we still had hope. Coach Flare calls a timeout and says, "we need a big play. Someone step up." The next ball carrier was running in the middle of the field, and I dove at him, and with my hand, I punched as hard as I could at the ball. The player fumbled the ball, and my team recovered it. We had all the momentum when the offense ran onto the field. The whole team was excited that we could win this game until the QB tucked the ball and sprinted to the right side of the field, where he threw an interception. I was disappointed; I wanted to win my 1st game with my new team. I still had a little bit of hope left. If we got one more stop, we would have another chance on offense, but that hope quickly left when they scored during the very 1st play we were back on defense. The clock ran out of time, leaving the score 31 to 20 Adams. I truly hate to lose and for me to be playing in my 1st game and we lost. I felt terrible, I didn’t talk to anyone until breakfast when my dad forced me to.
My second game with the team was played against North Farmington. This would be the 1st game that I started. I had an amazing game with two interceptions and one of them being to win us the game. I got interviewed by Fox Detroit and won player of the game. This was a super exciting moment for me, but I remained humble because I knew my team and I still had our work cut out for us in order to win the state championships.
My season was off to a great start and I had been playing super well. However, my streak felt threatened the week leading up to Seaholm. The practice was extremely intense that week. I was new to the history and rivalry. I had been in big rivalry games, but the environment during the Seaholm week was different from any competition I was used to, and it was very intense. It just so happened that I was late to the first practice that week. I showed up at 3:31 pm when practice started at 3:30 pm. Coach Flare bellowed into my face saying, "This isn't Chicago. Go back to state street with that energy." He continued to chew me out and say, "You may be able to go return to Chicago after this season and forget this game but my team won’t forget these guys for the rest of our lives". His comments triggered my desire to improve my perspective on Groves culture because I wasn't in tune with the rivalry.
So I brought my best energy and work ethic to the rest of practice that week. Despite me not feeling the same tension with Seaholm as the rest of the team did, I still wanted to win because I am such a competitor. We worked our butts off that week and practiced everything like it was a real game. Usually, we don't tackle to the ground in practice, but this week we did. And typically on Friday, it is a chill day, and we go through practice for more mental reps. But NO, this Friday, we practiced like it was Monday.
Aside from the rough week, I was excited about the game. I love big games and tend to perform best under pressure. Seaholm doesn't throw the ball a lot, so I knew it would be a physical game, meaning the defense would have to tackle extremely well. The game started, and possession over the ball was switching the whole time. I remember saying to myself, "We need to get a stop to win." This means that our defense needed to stop Seaholm’s offense in order to get our offense the ball. Both offensives are scoring with ease. Since Seaholm runs the ball a lot, which means they have the ball for a longer period of time, their touchdown drives are long and very organized. It takes a lot out of you when you are constantly hitting bodies over and over. Our offense on Groves requires more finesse, so we use our speed to score quickly.
At halftime, we were tied 14-14. They were kicking the ball off to us to start the 2nd half, meaning we had the chance to score and go more points. That didn't happen because they stopped us from scoring. We went off the field and I got a big-time tackle, but while doing it I knocked my contact lens out because I had struck a player. When the offense went back onto the field, I ran to the bathroom to put in a new set of contacts. By that time, It was 4th Quarter 21-21. We had gotten some stops on defense, the offense just got the ball, and we had all got back into the groove once again. Our receiver caught the ball and was running, the sideline is going dumb as we see him about to score. Then out of nowhere, a Seaholm player knocks the ball out of his hands on the 1-yard line, and they recover the ball. Everyone was silent. I couldn't believe what just happened. I could hear myself breathing. We were all so shocked.
Seaholm scored that drive, all while their sideline was taunting me, making jokes, and saying dumb stuff to try to get to me. It doesn't faze me when people talk, I kind of like it, it creates competition and fuels me to be more aggressive on the field. Offense scores are tied up 21-28 six minutes left in the game defense had to get a stop to give our offense a chance to win this game. Sadly that didn't happen and Seaholm scores again 35-21. Seaholm is up, the offense goes down, and gets a score of 28-35 with twelve seconds left. We kick an onside kick, but we cannot recover the ball. I was on the field to recover the ball. I remember the ball boy running up to a Seaholm player for the ball and asking for it due to the game being over. Instead of throwing it to him, he threw it to me and said, "take the ball *****," and he hit me in the helmet with it because I didn't want to catch the ball from him. That was when I truly started disliking those guys, I could look past the snide remarks and competitive chirping but what really enraged me was their poor sportsmanship even after they had one the game. I remember walking off the field with my head down and being in the endzone with the team praying after the game, and Seaholm fans are driving by calling us losers and chirping at us. I cried after that game. I felt terrible. I hate losing. It has to be the worst thing in the world. I felt like I had let the team down. Coach Flare pulled me to the side and told me everything would be okay and "we would fix this thing all the way." I went home that night and wanted to go home to Chicago. I needed to clear my head and go back to my roots. So that's what I decided to do. At 4 AM I got multiple phone calls to my phone from Unknown callers saying how I suck, and I shouldn't have any offers, and I should go back to Chicago. That made me even more upset. I don't even know how these people got my number and information about me and my offers or why they were targeting me over a game of football. As the season goes on, my performances keep getting better, but the team’s chemistry is off and we finished the season 3-3.
The 1st round matchup we are playing Avondale This week was super intense because I know that none of the guys wanted the season to be over, and it was added pressure because I am a senior and also didn't want it to end. My pops would say stuff like if you lose, I’m going to send you back to Chicago, and we didn't want to do that. He would make jokes around the house like "start packing your stuff" and "man, it is sad y'all are going to leave after this week," which only motivated me, my brother, and my cousin more. Practices went by fast by the time the game rolled around we were ready. The defense finally had gotten some swag and we won the game 39-0. Everyone was excited, but we all knew we had one goal: to be state champions, which meant beating Seaholm. I hung out with the guys Saturday night, and everyone was focused on getting our licks back. Sunday we watched filmed and practiced, every Sunday I practiced without a shirt no matter the weather, it was freezing like one of the coldest days since I have been in Michigan. The practice was great every day and intense; everyone was locked in. While driving to practice, I went past Seaholm. The practice was intense, but this time we were motivated more. The players ran practice, policing ourselves, so Coach flare and the other coaches didn't have to get us in line. Game Day came. I was so anxious I couldn't even focus in class. My mind was a million different places.
We drove past Seaholm on the way to the game and arrived at Groves. When we got there, we heard our starting lineman was going to be out of this game because someone in his house got COVID. This made all of the guys nervous because we didn't know who would play in his spot. I was getting tapped, and all of the guys came in freaking out, saying that he wouldn't be able to play. After getting tapped, we went to the hallway to have meetings, and coach flare addressed the situation, but he was cool about it, so everyone instantly calmed because if coach is cool, then we are too. We went over our defensive and offensive assignments and the goals of the game. The buses arrived, and we loaded up. It was a short drive. When we got off the bus, you could feel the tension. All the Seaholm fans and parents just stood there staring at us as we walked to the field. I couldn't stop smiling. I just like when the odds are against it makes it a challenge because in my mind, I know I'll come out on top. We walked onto the field and walked to our bench. The team started getting dressed and putting on our shoulder pads. I don't like doing that, so I stretch as loose as possible like no shirt and shorts are just most comfortable for me. I am already tense from the game, so I like to be lost. I went to the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and talked to myself. I was super nervous about this game. As the game went on, it got more intense when the 4th quarter came, and they drove the ball down the field. They scored, and it was 21-23. We were up. Our offense got the ball and couldn't score. There was 2:00 left in the 4th quarter when Seaholm gained possession of the ball back. They had to drive 80 yards down the field. Three downs pass, and they didn't get a first down. It was 4th down, and I thought in my head that I had to make a play. It would be the biggest play in my high school career. I was so locked in I couldn't even hear the crowd. Seaholm snaps the ball, and I realize it's a pass. I drop back, looking at the receiver watching his eyes as the ball is in the air. I start to run toward the ball, and then I intercept the ball. I started running for my life toward the end zone, thinking finally the game is over and we got our revenge. Running extremely fast, I finally dive into the end zone for a touchdown.
But that was my last high school play. Even though Groves won and advanced to the next round of the state playoffs, our season was over. Seaholm had reported my cousin, brother, and myself to the MHSAA board for lack of eligibility. A parent of a Seaholm football player claimed we weren't a part of the district, but that wasn't true. We also live in the district, and all three of us are enrolled at Groves. My dad has been in Birmingham for over five years and pays taxes. He also applied for guardianship over my cousin and brother and was accepted for it by the state of Michigan. We did everything Coach Flare, the state, and our Athletic director told us to do. We submitted our papers before I played a game and before my cousin and brother played a game. We did not practice until the board said we were eligible and when we cleared us we began to practice and play with the team. Unfortunately, A faculty member forgot to send in one of our papers, making all three of us deemed ineligible. The paper that was missing was a single signature paper that was not signed and it had slipped by the MHSAA to where they said we could play. With Seaholm telling the board to look into our eligibility the board took a more thorough and detailed look into our papers and realized the signature paper was missing. It was ironic that when we played Seaholm during the regular season, they didn't report anything to MHSAA. Seaholm beat us in the regular season, but didn't name us when the outcome went their way.
On November 10, my dad broke the news to me, my cousin, and my brother that our team was officially disqualified from the playoffs. We sat there in silence until practice that afternoon. Walking into practice was sad, the guys were so excited to practice. We were told to act surprised when Coach Flare told the news to the entire team. Coach flare and faculty members told the team before practice that there was going to be a meeting, but everyone thought it was to congratulate us on the great win and tell us how we could make history by winning this week and becoming district champs. Tears streamed down my face when coach Flare announced to the team, "We can not play in the district championship due to faculty mistakes. I'm sorry, guys." Even though I had already heard the news, being around the guys on my team made me realize the disqualification was real. It hurt even worse knowing I won't get to play with these guys again and that my high school career was officially over. My high school season didn’t come to an end because of a loss, it came to an end because of me.
The team stayed at the field for another hour: crying and saying our goodbyes. I went to every coach, every player, every friend and thanked them for allowing and accepting me into the Groves family. I remember giving Stavi a big hug, and we both just cried at the gate in front of the field. It was a tough moment. The rest of the week went by so slow. I took the smallest things for granted, such as going to practice and getting yelled at for messing around. After realizing that, I wanted nothing more than to be home in the comfort of the Chicago air. It is hard to be up in Michigan without playing football. When I went home later this winter, I thought back on all the great memories I made and how I got to play football in high school one last time.
Moving to Michigan has allowed me to fulfill my dream. I am proud to say I am signing to The University of Miami for football. I am forever grateful for Groves and all the people who surround me in this lovely community. Thank you for allowing me to make my dreams come true and for treating me like family.