Wolverine defensive lineman Kwity Paye recalled playing youth league football in inadequate equipment and well-worn uniforms.
University of Michigan linebacker Adam Shibley thought about the young football players in Cleveland collecting street donations for uniforms.
And so when Paye, Shibley and 11 other Wolverines experienced the unveiling of Terrance Byrd Jr., in his new Cleveland Red Dogs uniform and helmet at a mid-July presentation by their TUFF (The Uniform Funding Foundation) group, it was a full-circle moment of joy.
“This all was a complete surprise for the entire Red Dogs team,” said Shibley, who played at Cleveland St. Ignatius High. “We picked out Terrance to model the uniforms and put him behind a curtain. The rest of the team couldn’t see him. I told him, ‘Show the team how cool these uniforms are by getting excited as possible.’ I asked him to do the Ray Lewis dance.”
The Wolverines counted down from 10 to zero, and Paye and fellow defensive lineman Jess Speight dropped the tarp serving as a curtain.
“Terrance flexed on everybody and did a little dance,” said Shibley. “It was just the coolest moment for me to see his pure excitement and personality, and then the whole team celebrating, and his dad watching from afar. Everything came together in that moment, and it was something I’d always envisioned for the foundation.”
Paye said: “That moment was so heartwarming. To see him having fun, dancing around, showing off that uniform, and his teammates dancing, like, ‘We really have those uniforms?’ I wished I had had someone like this come to my teams when I was younger to give us nice uniforms. I loved the look on their faces. It was like, ‘This is amazing.’ ”
Michigan football players are making a difference off the field while preparing for the 2020 season. They’ve combined to mentor and raise funds for young players in Cleveland and Detroit, where a presentation to four Police Athletic League (PAL) teams will soon take place.
The Wolverines helped raise funds and present new uniforms and helmets to the Red Dogs and three other teams in the Cleveland Muny Football League.
Quarterback Dylan McCaffrey, fullback Ben Mason, offensive lineman Andrew Stueber, linebacker Adam Fakih, offensive lineman Joel Honigford, defensive back Jared Davis, running back Matt Brown, fullback Tyler Plocki, wide receiver Jake McCurry and defensive lineman Phillip Paea joined Paye, Shibley and Speight in Cleveland. Cornerback Ambry Thomas and linebacker Josh Ross, both of whom played PAL football, will join them to present motivational speeches in Detroit.
“Doing this with my teammates and doing something on our own, following up on what Shibley started, isn’t something people are telling us to do,” said Paye. “But we’ve got a good bunch of guys, and then you go and change other people’s lives. Being with these guys every day and knowing they have such good hearts, I can’t imagine anything better.”
Terrance Byrd Jr., enjoying his new red and white Red Dogs uniform and helmet.
TUFF’s executive team is comprised of founder Shibley, Paye, McCurry, Davis, Honigford and Speight.
“Adam spoke at the beginning in Cleveland,” said McCurry, who played at Solon (Ohio) High. “Then we had a TUFF talk and provided that mentorship we really value. We had races and donated chocolate milk and some Muscle Milk bars. We want it to be a happy, positive experience. We want to bring a lot of happiness to them, too.”
Shibley, a linebacker entering his fourth year in the program, saw a need and went about filling it.
“Adam was driving down the street in Cleveland and saw some youth league players asking for money for uniforms,” said McCurry, “and he said he never knew any other kids who had to do that, asking for money at a stoplight. So, while Adam’s a frugal man, he gave them $20 for uniforms. He didn’t believe that inequity should exist, and so he created TUFF to supply equipment, gear and uniforms. They shouldn’t have to wear 20-year-old uniforms or go without gear.”
Paye’s family is from Liberia, but he was born in a refugee camp in the Republic of Guinea before moving to Providence, R.I., when he was 6 months old. His safety greatly improved, but his family still struggled to make ends meet.
“The first team I ever played on was the West Elmwood Intruders,” said Paye, a second team All-Big Ten pick last season after making 50 tackles with 12.5 for lost yardage, 6.5 sacks and three quarterback hurries. “A lot of our uniforms were pretty old and beat down. We didn’t have practice jerseys. We didn’t have funds to buy new stuff and it was hard in that aspect. We played teams with much nicer uniforms. I really related with the Red Dogs on that level.”
The Wolverines have taken three different avenues to raise the funds necessary to purchase uniforms and more.
“We have donors or former players who are now professional athletes,” said McCurry. “They have a heavy heart for athletics because it played an integral part in their lives. Then we raise money through family, friends and businesses where we have connections. The third way is one of the coolest ways, through The Players Trunk (which sells player-owned, team-issued, game-worn products directly from the athletes), which was created by former Michigan managers and some former (Wolverine basketball) players. They provide us 95 percent of their profits from some gear. Jay Bilas and Dwyane Wade tweeted about it and sent them jerseys.”
McCurry and Shibley said they are learning about business and entrepreneurship through their charity foundation.
“That is intriguing to Adam and I as well,” said McCurry. “We created a business plan and have a marketing scheme. I’ve taken entrepreneurship classes and have a strong interest in it. It’s also one of the reasons I enjoy TUFF so much, and I really enjoy giving back.”
He said he and the other Wolverines joined Shibley’s TUFF in January.
“This means everything to me,” said Shibley. “I have a passion and always had a drive to get this thing going. Once people saw what I was able to accomplish in the beginning, they thought they would all be able to bring their own perspectives and what each one offers. It’s just been remarkable to see. The teammate support is awesome.”
Shibley and Byrd point to one another after Shibley and Wolverine teammates presented the Cleveland Muny League team brand new uniforms in July.
Shibley, a two-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree, was Michigan’s Co-Scout Team Player of the Year on defense in 2018. Last season, he was the Special Teams Player of the Game against Iowa. He’s also involved all over campus.
“I went through a program at Michigan called optiMize,” said Shibley of the student-led organization that offers workshops, mentorship and funding for students to create self-directed projects. “It was like a ‘Shark Tank’ incubator. You craft ideas for five months and meet with mentors, and learn as much as you can about launching your project.”
He immediately raised $5,000 with a grant after that workshop, and used that money to outfit his first team in the Cleveland Muny Football League. Shibley said he interned with former Wolverine quarterback star John Wangler (1977-80), who has become very successful in sports apparel and started the Valiant brand, and that provided valuable uniform connections.
McCurry said TUFF hopes to expand to Chicago, other Midwestern towns and places where donors might see a need. He noted that they “have the funds” to aid boys’ and girls’ youth basketball teams in the winter, and also expand donations with Cleveland John Adams High.
“We donated soft-shell helmets to John Adams,” said McCurry, who is a special teams standout and a 2019 Big Ten Distinguished Scholar. “And the people there were so grateful. We interviewed three captains they picked, and one was (senior) Rufus Hamm Jr., and I had the most impactful experience with him that I’ve had with TUFF.
“Rufus conveyed how difficult their situation was, and they almost had to forfeit games because none of the kids were wearing girdles (protective padded compression shorts) and a lot of them can’t afford cleats and gloves. He said a lot of them don’t have fathers (in their lives), a lot of them have siblings that were killed. They don’t even have a weight room. The majority of them do body weight exercises. They don’t have enough shoulder pads.
“Rufus lost his father, but is still a leader, the quarterback and a captain. We told him how mentally strong he was, and I formed a good relationship with him. We text back and forth, and I found that a week ago his brother overdosed on drugs. We gave Rufus a signed ball in Cleveland, and he talked a lot to Dylan McCaffrey about quarterbacking and they developed a relationship. John Adams opened my eyes to a lot of things. I could be in their shoes if I was born into a different family.”
McCurry noted that mentorship is as big as donations with TUFF members.
“Our mission statement is to advance the lives of young athletes,” he said. “We want to do more than donate uniforms. We want to help them develop.”
Shibley said defensive end Luiji Vilain is looking to get involved with donations to teams where he grew up in Canada, and Paye said he would like to see their foundation make a difference back home in Africa.
“To see the impact we’ve having,” said Paye, a two-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree. “If any other student-athletes want to join, they’ll have fun helping. I’d like to take it worldwide, definitely to Liberia, where my mom was from. There’s talks of going to Samoa to help teams.
“And anyone who wants to help, we’ll accept help with open arms. We’re starting to take off now. And when you do something like this, you never know who you might help. But I do know those kids will forever cherish that moment. For some kids, this might be their way out, giving them the hope and strength to move forward, making them love football and take it where they can.”
It all began with those youth football players who asked Shibley for help while he stopped for a red light.
“My faith is what brought me to this point,” he said. “We had a saying at St. Ignatius: ‘AMDG.’ It means ‘Ad maiorem Dei gloriam’ in Latin; ‘It’s for the greater glory of God.’ That’s pretty near and dear to my heart.
“I definitely thought of that when I met those boys.”
It’s said that it is better to give than receive, and these Wolverines are definite proof of that.