Football Coach Don Hill-Eley of Morgan State University could have lived anywhere in the Baltimore area. He chose to live near Morgan State, in "the hood." That decision led to another one – patronizing a grocery store near his home where he met Roderick Wolfe.
The meeting, five years ago, led to a story of faith, discipline, and success that is still unfolding. Roderick was a high school football player who did not seem destined for success.
"What did Roderick look like when you first saw him?" I asked the coach.
"He was tall, malnourished, and very dirty. He really looked homeless", said Hill-Eley.
"He told you he played football?"
"Yup. Told me he played football, told me he had good grades."
Roderick Wolfe looked homeless because he was homeless. He moved from house to house, sometimes with family, usually with friends. His father, a drug-dealer, died when Roderick was 10. By Roderick's senior year in high school, his mother was on drugs, the family evicted from their home, Roderick and his siblings scattered to the winds.
On occasion, he slept on the streets, on park benches. One day, he was in the supermarket parking lot hanging out with a friend, who had allowed Wolfe to stay in his grandmother's basement. The grandmother was also in the parking lot, collecting money –- panhandling -- to buy food for the boys.
She approached Coach Hill-Eley. He gave her money and engaged her in conversation when he saw the two young men walking towards him. Hill-Eley said one of them recognized him and asked if he was Morgan State's Head Football Coach. Hill-Eley responded, "Yes, I am. How did you know?" That's when Wolfe said he played football.
The coach was understandably skeptical, but promised to visit Wolfe's high school -- where he found two surprises. First, Wolfe was a decent football player. Second, despite his chaotic living situation – no home, no place to store his schoolwork -- Hill-Eley said the homeless high school senior met NCAA academic standards for college recruits, with a 2.9 Grade Point Average and a 1080 SAT score. "He had better grades and test scores than lots of recruits with a home and two parents," said Coach Hill- Eley.
Hill-Eley, who relies heavily on his religious beliefs, showed great faith in recruiting Wolfe, getting him a full scholarship and a home. Morgan State has been Wolfe's home address for four years. Wolfe adjusted to Hill-Eley's tough-love methods, ("no ear rings, no baggy jeans...") developing the discipline necessary to stay on the team and stay in college.
I probed the coach on why he would take the risk. He explained that he saw a younger version of himself in Wolfe. Hill-Eley's mother was a drug addict. He was raised by his grandparents, who instilled in him a tremendous work ethic.
That work ethic comes with a price. His commitment to the young men on his team prompted Hill-Eley to make a personal sacrifice. When his wife obtained a job out of town, Hill-Eley opted to remain in Maryland. He now divides his time between his family home in Mississippi and his "team home" at Morgan State in Baltimore. He is torn because he has a son – but he also views his 80 team members as sons, and doesn't want to make a decision that might harm the young men he recruited.
After more than six years at Morgan State, Hill-Eley and his staff have hundreds of young men who are success stories. Roderick Wolfe is just one of them. Whatever he does in the future, by any measure, he's accomplished something remarkable: he's a scholar athlete who will complete his undergraduate requirements in four years.
These days, that's quite an achievement for any African-American male college student, especially one who, just five years ago, was living on the streets.