Football scholarships ferry Liberty City kids from Miami Northwestern High to North Dakota’s frozen plains to pursue their dreams
12/21/2013 4:00 PM
12/23/2013 9:28 AM
Editor’s note: An enhanced version of this story is available here.
It was the kind of cold they could feel in their bones, made worse by 30-mile-per-hour winds that barreled across the North Dakota plains and whipped between the goal posts.
“At some point, you are going to walk out there, and your body is going to say ‘I’m cold,’” their coach had warned before kickoff. “Your body is going to try to say, ‘I can’t do this right now.’ You ignore that. You ignore that, understood?”
“Yes, sir!” they replied in chorus with their teammates.
But what did four kids from Liberty City know about playing football in freezing temperatures?
When Rashad Flanders, Jerrill Jenkins, John Lamour and Dantrel Horne played for Miami Northwestern Senior High, their games were held on sticky Friday nights before thousands of fans. Sometimes, beads of sweat covered their skin well before the whistle blew.
That changed three seasons ago. Fate and football scholarships had ferried them to a 1,000-student college in rural North Dakota called Mayville State, where few fans filled the seats on mostly frigid Saturday afternoons.
The transition from the electric streets of Miami to the rolling cornfields of Mayville had been fraught with uncertainty. Everything was different: the sub-zero temperatures, the way people spoke, the few black faces on campus. It was enough to make the South Florida kids feel out of place — and contemplate returning home for good.
But on this frozen November afternoon, as the Mayville State football team stood poised to win the conference championship for the first time since 1990, the decision to come here was all worth it.
A TICKET OUT
Like the other boys in the sprawling Liberty City housing project known as Pork ‘n’ Beans, Jerrill Jenkins was used to the pop-pop-popping of gun shots after dark. Once, a stray bullet had shattered the window of his mother’s car. Jerrill hardly stirred.
A quiet and thoughtful boy, Jerrill preferred the quiet of his bedroom to the chaos of the street corner. Still, Wanda Jenkins feared her youngest son would fall victim to the dope dealers. To keep him out of trouble, she kept him busy with football and baseball.
Rashad Flanders’s mother faced a similar quandary. She worried the boy would take after his father, who was serving time for drug trafficking and robbery. Instead, Rashad joined the 5,000 Role Models of Excellence mentoring program. He preferred to spend evenings and weekends at home, helping his mother and looking after his younger siblings, Terrence Jr. and Raven. Even football was a family affair. Rashad, a talented cornerback, made big plays to make his mother proud.
Rashad and Jerrill became close friends in a sophomore-year science class at Northwestern High. Their personalities were natural complements. Rashad cracked jokes in the classroom and carried himself with confidence. Jerrill was easygoing and rarely spoke up.
Outside of school, the boys forged a bond over football. Together, they worshiped the holy trinity of Liberty City teams: the Miami Dolphins, the Miami Hurricanes and the Northwestern Bulls.
Both were selected for Northwestern’s varsity squad as juniors. Winning a slot on the team was about more than football. It was about becoming part of a tradition that claimed a mythical national championship in 2007 and regularly launched players to Division I universities and the NFL.
Their quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, was courted by some of the nation’s top college football programs. Rashad and Jerrill fantasized about attending the University of Miami, or maybe LSU. They were sure the recruiters would call.
But with signing day rapidly approaching, neither Rashad nor Jerrill had firm offers in hand.
An assistant football coach 2,080 miles away was about to change their lives.
Nathaniel Gill needed to make a splash in his second year as an assistant coach at Mayville State University. Recruiting, he decided, was a fine place to start.
Gill visited the regional high schools that regularly fed into the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, in which Mayville State competes. But he wasn’t finding the talent he needed.
One afternoon, as Gill surfed recruiting websites from his office, a cramped loft above the weight room, he stumbled upon a profile for Neville Robinson, an offensive lineman at Miami’s Northwestern Senior High.
Gill knew Northwestern was among the country’s top high-school programs. He also knew that landing a Northwestern player wasn’t impossible. At powerhouse high schools, the elite players would be scooped up by top National Collegiate Athletic Association schools like Alabama and Ohio State. But solid athletes were often overlooked — and ripe for recruiting by smaller programs.
Gill was blunt in his pitch to Neville. With just 1,800 people, the entire town of Mayville was roughly the size of Northwestern High. The crowds attending Mayville State football games would be far smaller than those that packed into Nathaniel “Traz” Powell Stadium to watch Northwestern play Miami Jackson Senior High for the annual Soul Bowl.
But Gill gave Neville a reason to consider Mayville: He would get a partial college scholarship, and have the opportunity to play football at the next level.
Neville accepted — and spread the word among his teammates.
Both Rashad and Jerrill, a running back, were interested. The week of signing day, Gill offered each a partial scholarship.
Two other Northwestern players followed: defensive backs Shawn Collier and John Lamour.
It was an unprecedented get for Mayville, and for Gill as an assistant coach.
But the work was just beginning. Gill was sure the guys from Miami would be prepared to compete at a collegiate level. Preparing them for life in North Dakota, however, was a separate task.
Thankfully, Gill could relate.
When he had been recruited to play football for Mayville State in 2005, he had left his home in a predominantly black neighborhood in Houston. Adjusting to North Dakota had taken time, but Gill had been named team captain his senior year and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physical education.
After the Miami players accepted, Gill began sending them weekly text messages. Once summer started, he made sure they stuck to their workout regimes. He made regular calls to their mothers, too.
When the players arrived at the airport in Fargo, Gill was waiting with a van.
The players from Miami ventured to North Dakota in three separate trips.
John Lamour and Shawn Collier were first to land, stepping off the plane in heavy winter coats. Gill chuckled when he saw them. He must have forgotten to mention that summer temperatures in North Dakota soared into the 90s.
Rashad and Jerrill followed on a separate flight. Neville came later that night.
Leaving Miami had been particularly difficult for Rashad. Just before the holidays, his mother had lost her Miami-Dade County job and the family was evicted. Tiesha Thomas found a new position with the county, but was diagnosed with lung cancer the following month.
On the day Rashad departed for North Dakota, both mother and son cried at the airport.
Jerrill was quiet for most of the plane ride. He fixated on a single thought: His life was about to become wildly different.
The boys were relieved to see Gill at the Fargo airport. Conversation flowed easily during the 55-mile drive to the Mayville State campus. But there were moments when the young men from Miami stared out the window silently, awestruck by the green-and-golden cornfields and vast cobalt sky.
Mayville was not what they were expecting. It called to mind a Western frontier town. Some of the imposing brick buildings dated back to the late 1800s.
The downtown was a single intersection. The only fast-food joint was a nearby Subway sandwich shop tucked into a gas station.
But there was little time to contemplate the change in scenery.
Mayville State’s football team had gone 2-8 last year, and hadn’t had a winning record since 1991. The new head coach, former Mayville State linebacker Derek Schlieve, was determined to improve the program.
The players from Miami were his secret weapons.
Before the season started, Rashad told The Grand Forks Herald newspaper that he and the other players from Miami would turn around the Mayville State football program.
A copy of the article found its way to the bulletin board by the weight room. It infuriated sophomore cornerback Dylan Midstokke.
“I don’t like this kid,” Dylan told a teammate.
The Miami guys had the same bravado on the field. They played a fast, physical game peppered with smack talk, even in scrimmages against their own teammates. They acted like conference champs, despite last year’s abysmal record.
Coach Schlieve took note. Theirs was a confidence that bordered on arrogance, and something most coaches from the Midwest wouldn’t tolerate. He would have to teach the players to rein it in.
Off the field, the players from Miami isolated themselves.
They stood out at Mayville State, where 80 percent of students were white. Few other students on campus shared their taste for flat-brimmed baseball caps and neon Air Jordans. And only a handful could understand their fast-paced speech and Miami slang. In Miami, “safe” and “nafe” were substitutes for “yes” and “no,” and “bruh” was an acceptable greeting. In North Dakota, the words drew puzzled looks.
The guys found North Dakota equally strange.
Many of their classmates, professors and neighbors took an interest in hunting, and wore camouflage jackets around town. They spoke proper English with a singsong accent, and sometimes used bizarre expressions like “Uff-da.”
Before practice one afternoon, a local reporter asked the Miami players what they missed most about South Florida.
“Fried chicken, greens and watermelon,” they shouted out, practically in unison.
Coach Schlieve pulled the guys aside after the interview. He warned them against reinforcing stereotypes.
Like it or not, he said, the guys from Miami were under a microscope.
“If you go out and do great things, you are going to be praised,” Schlieve said. “But if you do something foolish, that’s going to be multiplied, too.”
The football season opened with a thriller: a 21-18 victory over Robert Morris University.
The Mayville State Comets barely lost their second game, only because Minnesota-Crookston scored a late field goal.
In week three, they blew out Trinity Bible College by a score of 65-6.
The Miami swagger, it turned out, was infectious.
Mayville finished the season with a 5-6 record. The five wins were more than the team had tallied in the previous three seasons combined.
It was good, but not good enough. The Northwestern players were used to championships, and they were determined to deliver.
Once the excitement of football season died down, the homesickness kicked in.
The dorms could be lonely. Most weekends saw Mayville students return to their families in Grand Forks and Fargo.
Jerrill struggled with the gray skies and bare trees. He called his mother almost daily. Sometimes, he thought about returning home to Miami for good. His mother wouldn’t allow it.
Two decades ago, Wanda Jenkins had gone away to Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. But she returned home to Miami quickly after her mother suffered a heart attack. Wanda Jenkins never earned her degree.
“God placed you at Mayville,” she told her son over the phone. “You stay where you are and make your mark there.”
On the darkest and coldest nights, Gill had the guys over for dinner. He cooked spaghetti and tacos, and told them what Mayville was like when he was a student.
“It’s not going to be easy,” he advised one night. “But stick to it. I promise, the best is ahead.”
The winter brought new experiences. During the season’s first snowfall, Rashad bolted outside in shorts and a T-shirt and pelted Jerrill in the face with a snowball. He had never held snow before. Surprisingly, it made his hands burn.
The guys tasted venison. They watched ice hockey games. They bonded with their teammates over pizza and video games. Dylan, who was raised on a ranch in Idaho and never had a black classmate or friend, started picking up some of their slang.
At the end of the year, Neville Robinson, the first Northwestern player to be recruited by Mayville State, withdrew from school and returned to Miami. Shawn Collier, who suffered a knee injury, also returned to South Florida.
But Mayville picked up another Northwestern graduate: receiver Dantrel Horne, who transferred in from Concordia College, Selma. They called him “Stick” because of his 6-foot-3, 185-pound frame.
The magic remained intact. For the second year in a row, the Mayville State Comets finished the season with five wins and six losses.
Suddenly, the boys from Miami were the big men on campus.
Students started stopping by the Subway sandwich shop where Rashad worked to congratulate him on the season. The other guys were recognized in the streets, too. Invitations to parties followed.
That Christmas, Tiesha Thomas couldn’t wait to have Rashad home for the holidays. He made the trip, but didn’t stay long.
Almost as soon as he arrived in South Florida, Rashad was ready to return to North Dakota. He talked incessantly about the football season, his classes, and his new girlfriend.
His grandmother worried he had already forgotten his roots. But his mother understood.
“There’s nothing for him here,” Tiesha Thomas told her mother.
This time, there were no tears at the airport when Rashad took off for Mayville.
There are traces of Liberty City scattered throughout the dorm room Rashad shares with freshman quarterback Robbie Strand. His Northwestern practice jersey hangs above his bed. Stickers of his high-school mascot, a gold and royal blue bull, are proudly affixed to the walls.
The focal point is Rashad’s TV.
Occasionally, the guys from Miami cram into his room to watch the Miami Hurricanes. Sometimes, they catch a Louisville game. The team’s star quarterback is Teddy Bridgewater, who played with them at Northwestern.
They watch with a mix of pride and envy. They wonder what it would be like to play at a Division I school with tens of thousands of screaming fans. Their football field in North Dakota accommodates about 3,000 spectators, and is dwarfed by surrounding farmland.
Still, the guys are grateful to be where they are.
There are little things they have come to appreciate. They can walk across campus in the dark without fear of being mugged. When they forget to lock the doors to their dorm rooms, nobody steals their belongings.
On weekends, there are parties, and there are bars in Mayville and in the surrounding cities. The Buffalo Wild Wings in Grand Forks is a favorite.
Rashad likes the party scene. Jerrill does not.
When Jerrill was a toddler, his mother would sometimes leave their home to get high. One restless night, Jerrill begged his mother to stay. She ignored his pleas — but checked herself into a rehab facility the next day.
Wanda Jenkins has stayed away from drugs since that day. Jerrill wants nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. He focuses on his classwork in business and accounting, and works at the Pizza Shop in town.
On a Sunday afternoon in November, the guys meet at the Pizza Shop for large pepperoni pies and a pitcher of ice water.
They talk and daydream about the future.
Rashad, they tease, is most likely to spend the rest of his life in North Dakota. He is dating a classmate who grew up in North Dakota. He already spends much of his free time in Grand Forks with her and her family.
Rashad laughs along, but conceals his real thoughts. He knows professional scouts have called to ask about him, and he’s willing to go wherever the game will take him.
Stick sees himself moving to Colorado. He likes the cold weather and relaxed culture. John says he would stay in North Dakota if the right job came around.
Jerrill is the lone member of the group who wants to return to Miami. His goal is to open his own accounting firm. He also has a higher calling: to start a non-profit in the neighborhood where he was raised. The organization would provide mentoring for young men like himself, who grew up without a father.
He considers the goal well within his reach. On Facebook, he calls himself Jerrill DreamChaser Jenkins.
Since the Northwestern players arrived, Mayville has become a destination for talented football players from Miami high schools.
Earlier this year, South Dade Senior High graduate Keith Osgood transferred in from the University of Minnesota, Crookston. The team also picked up two new recruits from Miami Northwestern and three from Miami Jackson.
The 2013 season started slowly.
In the opener against Midland University, Jerrill rushed for 86 yards and scored three touchdowns. But he cramped up and missed most of the fourth quarter. Mayville lost 31-27.
The Comets lost their second game, too, played at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
But they picked up a key win against Haskell University, a game that saw Jerrill rush for 148 yards and score two touchdowns. One week later, Mayville blew out the Cole College Jaguars by a score of 46-0.
On homecoming weekend, Mavyille beat cross-town rival Valley City State. It was the first time the team overcame Valley City since 1998.
The win was especially sweet for Jerrill. His mother Wanda had made the trip from Miami. She watched the game embedded in the cheerleaders.
Before long, the conference championship was within reach. If the Comets could win the last game of the season, they would share the title with the University of Jamestown.
Their opponent: a revenge-seeking Valley City State.
Valley had more than pride on the line. It, too, could secure a share of the conference championship with a win.
Before the game, played at Valley’s home stadium, the temperature dropped below 30 degrees, with the wind chill sending the thermometer even lower. Only four blanket-wrapped fans took part in the tailgate. They hovered around a hot pot of chili.
Mayville fans cheered the team from Miami.
“Good morning friends, family members and prayer warriors!” Wanda Jenkins posted to her Facebook page. “Let’s send our prayers up to the Mayville State Comets as they board the buses for the ride of a lifetime: the conference title, bragging rights and that ring!”
Jerrill shivered when he stepped off the bus. He had opted against wearing a long-sleeve undershirt out of fear the ball would slip from his arms. He regretted the decision immediately.
Before kickoff, Rashad prayed for strength.
Jerrill recited his usual prayer, asking God to keep him and his teammates free from injuries, and giving thanks for the opportunity to play.
Valley City was first to score. At the half, they were up 17-0.
Coach Schlieve gathered his players in a nearby building to keep them out of the wind.
“We gotta grind it out, the same way we did the season,” Schlieve said. “It didn’t start pretty, but we’re here. Don’t flinch, fellas. Don’t flinch.”
The Comets scored a touchdown in the third quarter. But they couldn’t stop Valley City running back Derek Elliott, a homegrown talent who tied a school record with 286 rushing yards.
The final score was 37-12.
When the last whistle blew, nearly all of the Mayville fans had retreated to the warmth of their cars. Schlieve directed his players to take a knee in the end zone.
“We need to keep our heads high,” the coach told them. “We have to stay classy. You might be tempted not to go to class, not to do the little things. You gotta ignore it.”
The team, Schlieve said, had made history by posting a 7-4 season.
“This will be one of the things that shape you,” he said, searching for the words to inspire the young men. “You will go on to do great things.”
On the bus ride back to Mayville, Rashad and Jerrill were frustrated by the idle chatter among their teammates. Both sat silently, reflecting on the loss.
They pledged to make next season — their last at Mayville State — end differently.
The victory party scheduled for that night was canceled. The streets of downtown Mayville were cold and desolate.
Jerrill, Rashad and Rashad’s girlfriend, Emily Jo Severson, sat alone at the pizza shop/video store in town. They flipped on the television, only to catch the University of Miami Hurricanes losing to Virginia Tech.
Rashad and Emily shared a mint Oreo milkshake. Jerrill exchanged text messages with his mother, who tried to console the boys on Facebook.
“To my Mayville State Comets: I love you in spite of anything. Win or lose, we are still family.”
“To the #1 man in my life, Jerrill Jenkins: I over love you, man. Keep your head up, head up. There’s always next year.”
Later in the night, Rashad and Emily met some friends at a bar. Jerrill went home and watched a movie.
Outside, snow flurries fell from the dark skies over the North Dakota plains.
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