In Play with Tom Markowski

Eight River Rouge students sign letters-of-intent for football as tradition continues to grow

Football   | Tom Markowski

Eight River Rouge students sign letters-of-intent for football as tradition continues to grow

River Rouge – Corey Parker is like a proud father today.

National Signing Day, the first day high school seniors are able to sign a national letter-of-intent with a college or university, is akin to a national holiday for some. The students who are fortunate enough to sign a letter-of-intent are all smiles on this day as are their family, friends and coaches.

Parker, who recently completed his eighth season as River Rouge’s head coach, had eight of his players sign on Wednesday, believed to be the most in school history. Next February there could be more.

“My No. 1 task is to get these guys in schools,” he said. “All of the wooden trophies are collecting dust.”

The eight players are Jairus Grissom (Eastern Michigan), Stephen McGill (Central State, OH), Darrell Latham (Central State, OH), Justin Knott (Seina Heights), Brandon Taylor (Olivet College), Sean Giles (Vermillion College, MN), Dante Ollie (Hocking College, OH), Keyon and Keron Williams (Northwood).

It took a year but the program has been highly successful since Parker’s arrival in 2009. The Panthers were 2-7 his first season and have made the state playoffs every season since culminating in a state final (Division 5) appearance in 2015. This past season River Rouge lost to Detroit Country Day in a Division 4 semifinal.

It took some time for Parker to rid the program of the riff raff but once the bad apples were removed the program blossomed.

“The team (grade-point average) was 1.4 when I got here,” he said. “Players were involved with gangs and dealing drugs. Gang members are fast so when they left we didn’t have much speed. We didn’t expect to make (the playoffs in 2010). We just wanted to get better. We beat Livonia Clarenceville and Harper Woods, and after that I knew we had something.”

Winning is infectious. In ’09 Parker started with 20 players on varsity and somehow pieced together a 12-member junior varsity. This past season those figures have risen to 55 and 40, respectively. Next season Parker said he could have 60 on varsity.

Besides winning, another factor in the increase in numbers is that Parker has more to choose from. River Rouge’s enrollment bottomed out in 2008 at 379. That number increased to 434 the following year and to 508 in 2010. This year the enrollment is 741 and Parker said that could climb to 800 or more in September. River Rouge might also move to Division 3 for football in the fall.

Don’t look for many top-level, top-five conference Division I signees from this program. Havert Beal, a linebacker who was a senior on the 2013 team, was the first Parker-coached player to sign with a Division I school (Austin Peay, Division I FCS). Grissom, a 6-2, 210-pound quarterback, signed with Eastern Michigan on Wednesday to become the second.

Grissom transferred to River Rouge from Dearborn Heights Robichaud after his junior year. When he became part of Parker’s program it opened his eyes. Grissom struggled academically at Robichaud. If his grades didn’t improve quickly he might have been forced to go to a junior college. That’s not what he had in mind.

“I didn’t want to go to a school I had to go to,” he said. “I wanted to go to a school where I wanted to go.”

He received help from many sources.

“My teachers had my back,” he said. “I had my phone taken from me when I got to school. It helped me focus more. It didn’t bother me.”

His phone was returned when school was over. No, Grissom isn’t special. It’s a school policy.

Like so many athletes, Grissom gained confidence, athletically and emotionally. It’s one thing to throw a touchdown pass and win a football game, it’s another to accept your faults and realize that the game, that life, is not always about you.

Coaches like Parker and his staff take an interest in their players that goes far beyond the field. Instructing a player how to block and tackle properly, or how to read a linebacker’s reaction to a certain play call is basic to the game. How coaches use their authority when improper actions off the field take place begs a different teaching process.

 “I’ve never had a coach who I looked up to like (Parker),” Grissom said. “He’s always motivating me. He gets on me about the little things. For him, grades come first.”

Reggie Pearson is the face of what will be the 2017 team. Pearson is a quiet, almost painfully shy, person. It’s just the way he is. If you gain his trust, he opens up. If not, he remains quiet.

Pearson, a 5-11, 180-pound junior safety, committed to Wisconsin. He’s the first player from Parker’s program to commit to a Power Five conference school. It’s a milestone for Parker and his staff but one can bet Pearson won’t be the last.

Pearson has family in the Madison, Wis., area, a factor that played a big part in his decision.

“(Wisconsin) felt like home,” he said. “When I get homesick I have my auntie to go to.”

Pearson is ahead of the game and not just physically. He carries a 4.4 grade-point average and scored an 1180 on the SAT. He intends on majoring in mechanical engineering, a field his grandfather, Lavelle Shinault, excelled in. Shinault was a mechanical engineer in the automotive field in Detroit. He took his grandson under his wing and by his freshman year Pearson knew what career path he would take.

“Everything is competitive here,” Pearson said.  “We compete with our grades or we get in trouble. If we don’t get good grades we’ll have to sit out a half or have our phones taken away.”

Ah, those phones again.

“Football, it’s competitive there, too,” Pearson said. “I love it. During games, we’re so competitive in practice that when we get to the game we’re serious. Everything is simpler.”

While Pearson and fellow junior Lee Payton, a 6-3, 215-pound tight end who has been offered a scholarship by Florida and Syracuse, among others, are homegrown, senior Keron Williams, like Grissom, transferred to River Rouge after his junior year (from Detroit Mumford).

Williams (5-11, 170) is a slot back receiver who signed with Northwood.

Academically, and perhaps athletically, Williams wasn’t college material at Mumford. He had a 1.5 grade-point average and, overall, lacked confidence.

“I didn’t have the mindset at Mumford,” he said. “At Rouge, the people are different. It’s the environment. At Mumford I was ready to settle for less, like a JUCO. As soon as I stepped into school here, it was different. Expectations were high. My life has changed a lot.”

As part of the tradition Parker has started here, he has all of the players who signed their letters to speak to the student body and where they came from, where they are now and what the future holds.

The school treats it like a celebration. The band plays, the administration adds their input and the players give their emotional talks.

“I always tear up,” Parker said.

Tears of joy. There will sure be more to come in the years ahead.