It’s sundown in Miami on a muggy Tuesday in September.
In the old days, Luther “Uncle Luke” Campbell would just be getting up, preparing to jet to a hip-hop concert or deejay through the night.
Fast forward 25 years. Today, Campbell, clad in shorts and a T-shirt, is wandering the football fields at Charles Hadley Park in the heart of Liberty City, coaching kids as young as 4 who are hoping to become the next NFL superstar or land a football scholarship to college.
Here, the rap superstar is known simply as “Coach Luke” — the hero of Liberty City, who has saved countless young black men from a life of drugs, crime and possible death.
“He has saved a lot of lives,” said Richard Williams, a 34-year-old football coach at Hadley Park. “This is Liberty City. He saved my entire generation here. I’d probably be a statistic if it wasn’t for him. If he told me to run 100 miles per hour, I’d run 200 miles per hour. I would do anything for him. He is loved and respected by everyone here.”
In some circles and on Wikipedia, Campbell, 54, may still be known as the controversial rap legend whose band, 2 Live Crew, led to a precedent-setting obscenity case at the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1990s that resulted in parental warning labels on albums and CDs.
But the majority of people don’t even remember or listen to Campbell’s music — including his own kids as well as the kids he coaches these days. And his focus is not on making music or being a celeb, but saving a generation of children living in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Miami, where Campbell himself grew up — Liberty City.
Twenty-five years ago, Campbell co-founded the Liberty City Optimist Warriors at Hadley Park, contributing $100,000 of his money to buy helmets, sneakers and football equipment for the kids, who range in age from 4 to 15. He recruited coaches and offers baseball and basketball as well as football. There’s also a competitive cheerleading program for young girls.
This is Liberty City. He saved my entire generation here. If he told me to run 100 miles per hour, I’d run 200 miles per hour.
Richard Williams, football coach at Charles Hadley Park, on Luther Campbell
Campbell’s grand plan was to use sports to get kids off the streets and into college. He developed relationships with coaches at colleges around the country to secure the kids football scholarships. Campbell whips out his phone to show a reporter the extensive contact list he has of college football coaches from various divisions.
“We have a reputation all over the country,” Campbell said. “I try to keep up a good relationships with all the coaches.”
Campbell also is the defensive coordinator at Miami Norland High School and has a close relationship with the University of Miami football program. In 2012, he filed a lawsuit against Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro, claiming Shapiro slandered him by stating Campbell gave improper benefits to University of Miami players in a "pay for play" scheme.
In 2011, Campbell tried his hand at politics with a failed run for mayor of Miami-Dade County, coming in fourth among 11 candidates and winning 11 percent of the vote. He says he's done with politics.
Over the summer, he was busy promoting his autobiography, The Book of Luke.
But make no mistake — his passion lies firmly in the dirt fields of Hadley Park, just blocks from where he grew up.
Since the start of the Optimist program, thousands of kids have passed through, many snagging football scholarships at schools like University of Miami and Florida State University as well as Tuskegee University in Alabama, Kent State University in Ohio and Stillman College in Alabama.
The program has made a name for itself nationally; a traveling team made it to a national competition five times. At any one time, 300 to 400 kids are participating in the various programs.
About 30 have made it to professional sports, including Duke Johnson of the Cleveland Browns, Devonta Freeman of the Atlanta Falcons and Cary Williams of the Seattle Seahawks.
But it’s the kids who go on to become doctors, nurses and other professionals that Campbell focuses on.
“There’s only a 1 percent chance of kids making it to the NFL,” he said. “Here, education is the most important thing. It’s the ticket out.”
Eighty percent of those who go through the Liberty City Optimists program go to college, Campbell said. That number is astounding considering the area is one of the poorest and highest in crime in South Florida. The population of Liberty City is 39,585, based on the 2013 American Community Survey. Its median household income is $21,671, or about half of that for Miami-Dade ($43,100) and the state ($46,956 ), based on that same survey.
The Liberty City Optimists are not just about sports but also about education. All participants have to present their report cards to the staff and, if their grade-point average doesn’t meet minimum requirements, they can’t play.
On one afternoon, a mother scolds her young son in the Optimist office as he presents his report card to staffers. “What good is it if you’re playing football if you’re flunking out in school,” she admonishes him.
The park also features a computer lab, where the students can get tutoring to bring them up to the level they need to compete.
A key goal of the program is to keep the kids off the streets, playing sports year-round.
“The streets are very enticing,” Campbell said. “We lose some to the streets.”
Now living in Miramar, Campbell shows up at the park most Tuesdays and Thursdays, late in the afternoon. He first stops in the office to check in with staffers and tease some of the parents (“I see you finally got a job,” he jokes with one parent wearing a security guard uniform). Then, he hits the field to chat up his coaches and give the kids a few pointers.
He said he always knew he wanted to start a sports program in his hometown of Liberty City.
“I thought, ‘If I ever get a few dollars, I’m going to start a football program for the kids,’” he recalls. “I feel great about it.”
The rapper-turned-youth coach grew up in Liberty City, but was bused to Miami Beach, and didn’t get home until 11:30 every night. He played high school football at Miami Beach High, but still considers Hadley Park his hometown park, where he practiced sports, swam in the pool and hung out.
It was always important to him that kids in the neighborhood could stay in their own neighborhood — something denied to him by the busing.
Many of the kids return to the program as coaches, just like Campbell did. He points to the coaches on the field on a busy Tuesday night, directing various age players, saying, “He went to FAU, he went to Ohio State, he went to the University of Miami.” All volunteer their time, just like Campbell.
“Everyone comes back,” Williams says. “We’re like a family here.”
The city and county kick in “a small amount” for the program, Campbell notes — $50,000 from the city and $33,000 from the county. But he hopes to hook up with the Children’s Trust, a youth social services organization dedicated to improving the lives of children and families in Miami-Dade County. Campbell is seeking funding to provide counseling services to the kids.
“A lot of these kids go home to families with murdered brothers and sisters,” he said. “They really need someone to talk to.”
Euereca Coulanges, executive director of the Optimists, said the kids couldn’t care less if Campbell was a famed musician in his past.
“The kids don’t care about what he did in his past,” he said. “They care about what he does for the community. He doesn’t come here as a rapper. He has impacted a lot of the players.”
Liberty City Optimist Club
Address: 1350 NW 50th St., Miami
Phone: (305) 635-9239