NFL Draft: Football's boomtown is Detroit

DETROIT — The 2024 NFL Draft is set up downtown, serving as the glitzy center of the football universe this weekend. Just blocks away sits Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions won two playoff games in January.

And yet, if you really want to know why Detroit — long marketed as “Hockeytown” and historically an incubator for churning out elite basketball talent — is currently America’s football boomtown, you need to head out to the neighborhood fields and high school stadiums across this sprawling city.

It’s there, far from the spotlight and celebrities, where the NFL comes from — and they are coming in quantities that not just outpace the rest of the country and exceed historical norms but, per local coaches, are likely to increase.

“It’s completely different from even 20 years ago, Detroit is transitioning from a basketball town to a football town,” said Terel Patrick, head coach at King High School, which has produced a slew of college and NFL stars, including New York Jets All-Pro cornerback Sauce Gardner.

“I see so much growth right now,” said Marvin Rushing, the head football coach at Cass Tech, which had five alums play in the NFL last season, including New England OL Michael Onwenu and Lions WR Donovan Peoples-Jones. “There is more talent and a real hunger for the game at the youth level.”

It’s already started bubbling up. On opening day of the 2023 NFL season, Detroit, the 27th-most populous city in America, had more players (19) from its high schools on league rosters than anywhere else. The closest comparable was Houston, with 16. It also has a population (2.3 million) that is nearly four times that of Detroit’s 640,000.

Part of this is obvious. Football is a tough sport. Detroit is a tough town.

“It comes down to the pillars of our city, working class, blue-collar, grit,” Rushing said.

“You have to grind for what you want,” Philadelphia Eagles star Brandon Graham, who played at Detroit Crockett and still holds an annual youth football camp here, said this week. “Nothing was ever given. For me, [Detroit] brought me up and made me who I am today."

Yet Detroit has always been hardscrabble. And it isn’t alone. Everywhere from Miami to Rock Hill, South Carolina is famous for producing incredible amounts of per capita talent. This is believed to be the first time Detroit has ever had the most NFL players.

Coaches say the reason ranges from a rule change in the youth ranks to encourage more participation among bigger players to improved facilities and funding for kids activities that make the sport seem special. That includes turning the old Tiger Stadium into a Detroit Police Athletic League facility where football as well as baseball is played on modern turf.

“We now have the infrastructure that other cities, especially in the South, have had for years,” Patrick said.

Others point to the popularity of football in general driving down interest from great athletes in playing basketball. The latest figures from the Police Athletic League showed 34,944 boys played football, but only 18,803 basketball.

It’s believed just two players, Jamal Cain of the Miami Heat and Isaiah Jackson of the Indiana Pacers, who played at least one season at a Detroit high school, appeared in the NBA this season. It's a sea change for a city that once churned out major talent — George Gervin, Spencer Haywood, Derrick Coleman, Jalen Rose and so on.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the biggest homegrown star athlete in Detroit isn’t a basketball player, but Gardner, the über-talented and equally charismatic cornerback.

Patrick, the King coach who remembers Gardner as a 140-pound sophomore, attended a youth football clinic Sauce held last year. He was blown away by the reaction from the campers.

“The way these kids responded to him, it was unreal,” Patrick said. “It was probably how I would have responded if, at that age, I met Prime Time [Deion Sanders].”

Sauce Gardner was just one of 19 NFL players on opening-day rosters last season from Detroit high schools, most of any city. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)
Sauce Gardner was just one of 19 NFL players on opening-day rosters last season from Detroit high schools, most of any city. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)

That fuels participation. So does, or should, recent success by the Lions and the nearby University of Michigan. Meanwhile, some city games — notably the annual Cass-King game — have become anticipated, massive affairs played in front of standing room-only crowds.

Others point to the tradition of NFL stars returning to hold kids camps and even college programs working with youth coaches.

“There’s better instruction at the youth level,” Rushing said. “Michigan, Michigan State and Eastern Michigan have all come in and done clinics for coaches and that’s really helped put kids in a better position.”

Then there was the decision 10-15 years ago for the youth leagues to drop weight limits for players, which essentially kept bigger kids away from the sport. Now almost everyone is welcome and linemen don’t show up as high school freshmen with no experience.

“The guys in the trenches have been in the trenches,” Patrick said.

Patrick additionally points to a generation of Black men in Detroit who are determined to improve conditions and spend countless hours mentoring and teaching, including through football.

“You hear about the absence of Black men in the family, in the community, but if you look at youth sports here it’s about Black men giving back,” Patrick said. “It’s fathers and sons, uncles and nephews. It’s older men giving back to younger men.”

Rushing, for example, grew up in Detroit public housing — “on the rougher side of town” — but fell in love with football. He starred at Cass Tech and earned a scholarship to Eastern Michigan. Injuries ended any chance of the NFL, but he’s a district manager for Comerica Bank, overseeing 170 employees. He doesn’t need to coach high school football, but wants to show kids what the sport can do for them.

“Football lets them express themselves,” Rushing said. “Be a leader when you need to be a leader. Be a follower when you need to be a follower. There are so many life skills in it and more and more kids are coming to it.

“From what I am seeing, it is only getting bigger here.”