For the last six days, Carl Riggins has been getting up at 5 a.m. and driving through the streets of Detroit in a van that belongs to a homeless shelter.
He picked up a 6-year-old here, an 8-year-old there, from the east side, from the west side, from Highland Park.
At one point, he had 14 kids in that van.
He put on music. He told them to get comfortable. And he made the long drive out of the city to wider spaces, nicer views, down I-94 to the campus of Eastern Michigan. It was an Olympic journey of sorts. The Junior Olympics.
This is the saga of the most unusual track team you’ve ever seen, one that practices in the winter in a gym above a shelter, one whose kids may have once been homeless or lived in transitional housing themselves, whose parents may be battling substance abuse or extreme poverty. The team is called the Greyhounds – full name, the Detroit Rescue Mission Greyhounds – and they sprint and they jump and they throw shot puts and this year, for the first time, thanks to the generosity of readers of the Free Press, they competed against the best young track and field athletes in the country wearing new shoes and uniforms. Red and black uniforms.
Their own uniforms.
“Oh, please,” Riggins said, laughing over the phone, when asked Saturday what difference these uniforms had made. “Man, they loved it. That’s probably why most of them got to this level. It gave them motivation to feel competitive. They didn’t have to feel different anymore.”
In previous years, in previous meets, the kids wore whatever Riggins could find – a T-shirt, a pair of shorts. When they lined up in the starting bocks, they would catch the glances of competitors. They’d feel underprepared, their shoes from a discount store, their outfits lacking a team name. Hey, when you’re a kid, the slightest difference can make you feel inferior.
But earlier this year, after a column about the Greyhounds running laps in their winter clothes, readers sent in donations: a few dollars, a few more, a check, a bigger check.
And one spring weekend, out at Harper Sport Shop in St. Clair Shores, the Greyhounds had a shopping spree.
It was as happy a morning as you’ll see this side of Christmas. A fresh start
I was there that day, watching the kids peering excitedly into boxes that had their uniforms folded and waiting. They tried on silver Nikes and ran up and down the aisles of the store, as if bursting from the blocks. The people at Harper Sport were generous and patient, and there was such noise and laughter that there seemed to be kids everywhere, tying shoes, pulling on singlets, admiring each other. Most of them had never been in a store like that, let alone having something given to them to keep as their own.
Riggins was there that day. And he was near tears. He often says, “You’re about to cry,” but he means it, because what he sees happening is that emotional – especially to him. Riggins once ran track, too, for Kettering High in Detroit. But that was a long time ago, before his life came unraveled, before he fell into homelessness, before he slept in alleys or abandoned houses or on the roof of the Ford Auditorium, before he scrounged through garbage bins for food, before he got head lice, before he lost hope, before he wandered into the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries one day and found his hope again.
He is 57 now. He works for the mission. Like most people in that world, he does a bit of everything, from managing buildings to leading the choir.
But the track team. That’s his passion. His pride. This past week, he and his wife made up lunchmeat sandwiches every night and he brought them in a cooler the next day out to the meet, along with drinks and fruit.
Riggins works alone. He has done so all winter and all spring and summer, right up to the Junior Olympics, the final event of the season for the Greyhounds. Riggins is the coach, the trainer, the babysitter and the psychologist.
Other teams in the Junior Olympics had names like Seattle Speed, Dallas Blaze, the Virginia Beach Mustangs, the Capitol City Comets. They had multiple coaches and trainers. Sometimes their athletes, Riggins said, “even lie down on these portable massage tables and get treated in between events.”
The Greyhounds have nothing like that. But they have their uniforms. They have their shoes. They have their team name.
Oh. And they have some results as well. Some breakthrough performances
Sixteen kids from the Greyhounds qualified to compete in these AAU Junior Olympics, Riggins said. That’s impressive by itself. There were James and Mary Mitchell, two 13-year-olds; Mary, who ran in the 400 meters and long jumped; James who threw the shot put and ran a relay.
There was an 8-year-old fireball named Genesis McClendon, who at such a young age still can tell you memories of sleeping in a shelter. Genesis long jumped and ran the 100-meter dash
There was Kyla Junil, who long jumped and ran a relay; Javell Watkins, who ran the 4×100 relay; and Daisahna Thomas, who threw the shot.
There was Patrick Johnson, 12 years old, who competed in the boys sub-youth long jump and finished sixth, with a leap of 18-feet-9 1/4 inches. On Saturday, he finished fourth in the 100 meters in 11.77 seconds.
Fourth in the nation?
“I’m gonna tell you, people are noticing the team now,” Riggins said. “They call me and say, I hear you guys got a track team. I hear they’re outstanding’ “
They’re also standing out. Not in the bad way, not in the poor, we-don’t-have-uniforms way. But in the way they battle against forces that could easily pull them down, leave them despairing, hopeless, aimless.
Instead, this past week they got into that van every morning, a van that on other days might be picking up homeless clients from hospitals, and they journeyed out to a college campus and they ran and jumped against kids with far more advantages but with no more heart. And, for the first time, they did it with uniforms and competitive shoes – same as everyone else.
“I just want to thank all those people who donated money, from the bottom of my heart for all the spirit they gave this team,” Riggins said. “There’s a lot of emotional impact of being poor. I see the kids get nervous. They don’t know how people are looking at them.
“But with these uniforms and shoes, well, the kids couldn’t have done what they did without that help.”
Some story, huh? This week, the best athletes from around the world will gather in Beijing to compete in the Olympic Games. They will march and smile and hold their flags high. But none of them will wear a uniform any prouder than the handful of black-and-red clad kids who traveled home to Detroit on Saturday, gifted shoes on their feet, gifted shorts and tops on their bodies, their season over, but their dreams just beginning.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.