FRIEND OF THE CITY DEFINED BY HIS JOB

Maybe someday good fortune will take Ben Kelso out of this chair. It’s a ratty thing, held together with tape and stuffing and a towel that passes for a cushion. It creaks. It bends. It doesn’t seem like a man could even sit in it for five seconds. You can only figure that after so many years, Kelso has become part of the chair, as he has with just about everything here at Cooley High School in Detroit.

The gym outside his door? He painted it. The bleachers? He built them. The football field? He made it. Ben and his kids.

They made a football field?

“Our old field had been condemned and it didn’t have any grass,” he says, rocking back in that decaying chair. “It was all cinders and rock. So I got one of those machines that picks up sod, and we went out there” — he points out the window to a curb that runs by the school — “and we lifted these patches of grass and carried them over to the field.”

“You stole the grass?” he is asked.

“It was our grass,” he laughs, “we just moved it.”

Patch at a time. From the streets to the field, Ben and the kids, making the earth move. They sprayed the grass with water. And the next autumn, for the first time in years, Cooley played a home football game.

Ben Kelso has been planting small miracles like this for 14 years. Facilities are the least of it. The real dazzle comes from the kids he saves, the ones whose fathers have gone, who are skipping school, sleeping all day, running with gangs.

Kelso sees something in these kids, he sees green fields beneath the rock and cinder. So he goes to their houses and wakes them up when they are skipping class. He finds clothes for the kid who only has one pair of pants. He calls the doctor for the kid who needs insulin shots.

He makes what so many of us have forgotten how to make. A difference.

An NBA background

And yet, even a Samaritan like Kelso has dreams of moving on one day. So a few months back, he interviewed for a new job. Head basketball coach at Central Michigan, a beautiful, tree-lined campus. He was eminently qualified. A former NBA player, Kelso knows the game and he has won wherever he’s gone, including state championships at Cooley. After 14 years of the lonesome poverty of Detroit, he was ready for a change in scenery.

But he didn’t get the job. They gave it to somebody else. It’s happened before. People look at Kelso as “The Cooley Coach” — like an actor who is beloved for a single character but cannot be imagined in another role. It is unfair. A man’s gift should not be an anvil that holds him down.

But Kelso, who, as a poor child in Alabama, used to bathe in a river and wear shoes made of cardboard, is never one to complain. He buried himself in another summer project, surfacing the Cooley tennis courts. Every day, as the sun baked the earth around them, Kelso’s players cleared the rocks, flattened the dirt, spread the surfacing, painted the lines. They had laughs and they grew closer. And they stayed out of trouble, which, in this section of the city, is a trick of some note.

Kelso had promised the school would pay them. It was all legit. All accounted for. The youths would receive $300 apiece for the summer, six kids, $1,800 total. Hardly a lot of money — and a huge bargain, considering the school got new courts.

Then a new principal arrived.

A Cooley legend

The new guy didn’t take to Kelso. For some reason, he wanted to put his own stamp on Cooley, and he told Kelso he would be fired as athletic director. What’s more, he didn’t want the kids who worked all summer getting paid.

So here’s Kelso, doing for the school what nobody else would do, and some new principal is firing him as athletic director?

Kelso was down. But wait. The story turns. Word leaked out about this new guy. And the community rose up in anger. They signed petitions. They made phone calls. And a few weeks ago, the new principal was sent someplace else. And Kelso was back in his old job as miracle worker.

He deserves to go anywhere he wants, of course, but maybe it’s like someone recently told him. “Ben, God put you on a path, and your path is here.” Early in his career, there was a kid who was lazy, didn’t want to play. Kelso stayed after him, chased him out of bed. All the time, the kid hollered, “I hate Coach Kelso!”

A few years later, the player knocked on Kelso’s door, holding an infant.

“This is my son,” the ex-player said. “I named him after you.”

Kelso smiles. “You know what?” he says. “Today, that kid is right here in this school.”

He laughs and rocks back in his rickety chair. It may be rags and tatters, but at the moment, it looks like a throne.

Mitch Albom will sign his book, “Tuesdays With Morrie,” 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Book Nook, Brighton; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Little Professor, Plymouth; and 7 p.m. Friday, Webster’s, Ann Arbor.

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