In 2007, Martin Luther King, Jr. High School began a football legacy when it became the first team from Detroit schools to win a Michigan High School Athletic Association Football Championship, beating Midland 47-21. (Detroit Free Press photo by Rashaun Rucker)

The King Crusaders are expected to compete in the High School Football Division III Playoffs against River Rouge High School next month. 

The tournament has been pushed back three times in the past two months due to state restrictions to combat coronavirus. 

King football is well known as a brotherhood in Detroit. They’ve won several state championships and many of its students move up to play at the collegiate level. While forming a team bond during a global pandemic proved difficult, the Crusaders, who went 6-3 in this year’s shortened season and are undefeated in their conference, have a legacy of camaraderie that can’t be beat, in part due to the many alumni on staff. The 2020 season still provided the personal reflections and life lessons that Crusader men are expected to learn on and off the field.

Jaylen Reed, the team captain, described this year’s squad as “tough” since they maintained a winning season amid constant disruptions. They were determined to grow together even when their season had not yet been confirmed.

Head coach Tyrone Spencer, shown here in 2018, once played for the King Crusaders and says the team’s rich tradition of alumni support helps students. (Detroit Free Press photo by Kimberly P. Mitchell)
Head coach Tyrone Spencer, shown here in 2018, once played for the King Crusaders and says the team’s rich tradition of alumni support helps students. (Detroit Free Press photo by Kimberly P. Mitchell)

The coaching staff “try to change you into a grown man and how to move to prepare us for the real world,” Reed said.  “Because how [you] get a job is through education. So, we were ready for football but it’s the other stuff, like college, getting good grades, talking [to] colleagues, and how to look at your priorities.”

Reed, a senior, is one of several Crusaders expected to continue playing after high school. The safety committed to Penn State early while other teammates have committed to the University of Toledo, the University of Akron and Ferris State University.

Though Reed says he’s still “focused on King,” this year has not been what he predicted.

“I’m really ready to go to college after the football season,” he said. “There’s no prom, no homecoming, no senior trips, no nothing. I feel like a regular student in the 10th or 11th grade again, but in my mind I know I’m being prepared for the next step.”

Head Coach Tyrone Spencer said the team’s rich tradition of returning alumni has proven beneficial to students, especially now for emotional support as they work and study from home.

“It just works out where it’s still a family, no matter what,” Spencer said.

Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School had a winning football season despite delays due to the coronavirus. (Photo courtesy of Ty Spencer)

Spencer graduated from King in 2003 and went on to play at Wayne State University. In high school Spencer played with his now assistant coaches Wendell Brown, who played at Ball State, and Brandon Walker who played at Hampton University.  

Other King coaches, like Aronde Stanton who graduated from King in 2008 played football at Youngstown State University and Assistant Head Coach Terel Patrick, a King alum whose father also coached at the high school.

Stanton said he was visiting another alum at a King practice and was “welcomed with open arms.” It’s been a “great feeling” for him to connect with current students who hope to play in college and see “magical” winning seasons.

“I’m really close with the kids from my first year,” Stanton said. “Some of them have started to graduate now and that’s why, you know, to be able to call those guys and see them walk across the stage who go on to be better men in society and in life. That’s the reason I do it and it’s so gratifying.”

Now husbands, fathers and community leaders, have returned to King because they care about the students. A program baked in tradition, the alumni continue to focus on the values of sportsmanship passed down from former coach James Reynolds to Dale Harvel and now Spencer.

The King Crusaders beat Eastpointe High School 50-6 in their district final in mid-November. (Photo courtesy of Ty Spencer)

“If you don’t have a positive outlet sometimes it’s hard for you to stay out of trouble, you’re not doing anything constructive with your time,” Brown said. “And being around people who are positive, who have goals for their life as well and to have sports connect that for them, it’s a huge boost. It gives them something to strive for.”

Brown, who has his own harrowing story of being wrongfully imprisoned in China for three years, said the coaching staff serves as a resource to students and encourages players to be transparent about how they feel.

“As a coaching staff we’ve been checking in a lot more frequently with the young men and building a closer relationship with them outside of just sports,” said Brown. “It’s making sure they’re mentally, and spiritually and socially aware. Make sure they’re strong outside of sports because this is something totally new and an experience they won’t forget.”

State coronavirus restrictions didn’t allow for the entire team to meet in-person at the season’s start. They couldn’t even hit each other. King coaches split players into small groups for workouts and held virtual team meetings. The state allowed helmet play the first week of practice, followed by specific “contact” days in August. Eventually the use of helmets and pads was added in September. The team had additional safety precautions on practice days: students were asked to arrive early for temperature checks, everyone wore masks, and balls had to be switched frequently to be disinfected.

But like most high school teams, King didn’t play every week, they had an inconsistent practice schedule, and traveled farther away to find teams to play. King also dropped into Division III  play this year due to low enrollment numbers after just entering Division II last year.

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The Crusaders lost to Cass Technical High School twice this season, including in Detroit’s popular Public School League Championship. Their only other loss was to Mona Shores, whom the Crusaders lost to in the Division II finals during the 2019-20 season. This year’s loss was unexpected since the Crusaders were scheduled to play a different team that week. But due to a positive coronavirus case, agreed to play Mona Shores instead.

“It was just difficult, it was hard,” Spencer said about filling out King’s schedule. “And we’re never the ones to make any excuses, we’re gonna play the cards that we’re dealt and live with the results. And that’s what we did, just kept working and kept figuring out ways to meet.”  

Governor Whitmer and Michigan High School Athletic Association’s executive director Mark Uyl announced in two separate news conferences this month that high school football playoffs can resume Jan. 2. The Department of Health and Human Services will initiate a pilot program to allow three fall sports, about 4,000 students, to complete their seasons. Participants will be required to take a rapid coronavirus test. All other organized sports are still prohibited in Michigan

School closures in March affected the students too since team bonding is emphasized during spring and summer training. Finding ways for the team to be together was frustrating, but Spencer says his greater concern was the well-being of his students who were no longer attending school in-person every day.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on right now and it’s not even just our school, it’s just this period all around of grave suffering,” Spencer said. “And I feel sad for how these kids are learning right now but it’s something that we have to face.”

Detroit’s coronavirus cases have significantly dropped since the beginning of the pandemic, but the great loss of life still sits with many. Detroit Public Schools allowed in-person learning over the summer and into the first quarter of the fall but returned to all virtual just before the state mandate in November. Most of the Crusaders used football as their outlet from online learning and quarantine.

“We always want to be focused, paying attention, and having discipline,” Spencer said. “And you see a lot of times now in practice the kids are playful, extra social, like it’s almost too much. And it’s because they don’t see each other, they don’t interact with each other anymore and that’s become their time for social interaction because it’s not the same virtually.” 

Olivia Lewis is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. She was formerly a reporter for the Battle Creek Enquirer and the Indianapolis Star. She has also worked in philanthropy for the Kresge Foundation, the Council...

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