How a Detroit little league team produced three of college football’s biggest stars

WP

The picture is almost 10 years old now. It’s always been one of Buddha’s favorites, and as he gets older its meaning grows. The photo, now saved into his cell phone, represents his journey. Better still, it’s about their journey. Lord knows it’s been one heckuva ride for all of them, because that picture begins to tell the story of Buddha, J.D. and Double M, but also of their families and those who helped make the men they are now.

Buddha is the one wearing No. 20 sitting on the ground with his helmet between his legs. Like most kids who grew up in the Detroit area in the '90s, he loved Barry Sanders. J.D. is over his right shoulder, with his game-face still simmering even though his team, the Westside Cubs, just won the Detroit PAL championship by beating the Detroit Tigers. He has so much pride in being a Cub that he’s had the team name shaved into the side of his head. Double M is behind Buddha, kneeling with a grin, proudly holding up one finger. Even though he’s the youngest of the trio, his index finger appears to be almost as long as J.D.’s entire face.

Each of these three young men have only come to love the game of football even more since that day. They know better than to think that football defines them as people, but the game helped them land scholarships at three prestigious Midwestern schools. Now Buddha, J.D. and Double M are each All-Americans.

Most football fans know Buddha as Desmond King. Last year, he earned the Jim Thorpe Award, honoring the nation’s top defensive back after he tied an Iowa record with eight interceptions and led the Hawkeyes to their winningest season in school history. J.D. is Michigan’s star cornerback Jourdan Lewis. In 2015, he led the nation in most passes broken up with 15, earning him All-American status as well after he sparked Michigan to a 10-win season. Double M is Malik McDowell, who has grown into becoming the Big Ten’s most imposing defensive lineman. The 6-foot-6, 280-pound McDowell had 13 tackles for loss last fall as he helped Michigan State win the Big Ten title.

McDowell is projected by some NFL draft analysts as a Top 10 pick next spring. King and Lewis each had the opportunity to jump to the NFL last spring, but both opted to return to college to finish their degrees.

“That picture shows how far we have come,” said Lewis. “Nobody understands the magnitude of this and how amazing it is that we’re doing what we’re doing now.”

 

The Westside Cubs got their start in 1957. They were the only racially integrated team in the Detroit Youth Football League at the time. The legacy of great players who got their start with the Cubs is a long one.

Willie Horton, the former outfielder who slugged the Detroit Tigers to the 1968 World Series title, was once a Cub. So was College Football Hall of Famer Ron Johnson. So were Braylon Edwards, Larry Foote, Nick Perry, Dion Sims and Devin Funchess.

William Tandy once played for the Cubs, too. Tandy, a former lineman/linebacker, has been the Cubs’ head coach since 1994 and with the program as a coach for 24 years, but just like those three kids from that photo will tell you, the Westside Cubs are about more than football.

Our motto is 'God, Books and Ball,' and it’s in that order,” says the 53-year-old Tandy, who has a Masters in education administration and clinical social work. “We want you becoming spiritually sound to live under God’s law, and none of this can happen if you don’t take your academics seriously.”

Tandy isn’t kidding when he talks about the weight the Cubs put on school work. Players needed to show their coach academic progress reports from their teachers before they could get their uniforms to go into the Cubs lineup.

“They knew that was the only way they’d get to see the field, and they knew what those consequences were because they’d have to see some other kid play their position” said Yvette Powell, Desmond King’s mother.

“(Tandy) has had a big impact on the kids to this day. You’d always hear that, 'It was something about them Cubs that all their kids end up going to college.’ You’d have parents volunteering to help kids with their homework, and it was all the way up till they went to high school.”

Powell, a single mom, was determined to make sure Desmond had structure in his life and kept busy with positive activities. She put him in football at 5 and moved him into Tandy’s program when Desmond was 9. With the Cubs, she heard from other parents and old Cubs that Tandy’s team could make a difference in her son’s life, and as a team mom, she could help other kids too.

I saw the difference they made,” said Powell. “I was looking for someone to push my son. They prepared him mentally for football and for life. They helped me push him. They said ‘It takes a village to raise a kid,' and it does.”

Desmond King, an Honor Roll student at Iowa, said Tandy inspired him. “He brought out the best in me. He set goals for us and showed us if you really wanted something you had to work for it. He transferred us from little boys to men.”

Tandy always knew sports had the potential to lure kids in. His mission was that once you had them, it was critical what you did with that attention and how it was messaged.

“These kids come from a very, very tough neighborhood,” he said. “Football is my way of giving back. On the Westside of Detroit, the football field is really one of the only bright spots over there. We decided not to move because we wanted to give the young people hope over there. The biggest difference between us and other little league football teams is that it’s more than football to us. We talk to them about character, about dating, about being appropriate and being responsible. We believe in real models. I don’t say role models. We don’t play a part. We’re not acting.”

“It really was God, books and ball. They meant that,” said Jourdan Lewis. “Being a Cub instilled a lot of competitive desire and that swagger to all of our games. It was about being a perfectionist. You learned how to be a great football player and a great teammate. I didn’t really understand what he was doing till we got here (to college). He broadened our horizons.”

Lewis grew up in a more structured home than many of his Cubs teammates. His mom, Linda, taught special education. They became a Cubs family. Jourdan’s little sister Cameron was a Cubs cheerleader. Linda Lewis saw first-hand the impact Tandy and the other men who worked with the Cubs had on the kids.

“These men really stepped up,” she said. “They were dedicated. There was no pay there. But they were always there for them, and that’s what a boy needs, someone to guide him in the right direction through all the immaturity and insecurity.”

The boys also took responsibility for pushing each other often as much as their coaches did. McDowell’s own development is a prime example. Desmond and Malik first met in 2005 when the 10-year-old McDowell joined the Cubs. He became the biggest player on the Cubs. “I kept thinking, ‘Why is he so big?’” said King. “He was very huge. A freak of nature.”

The Cubs would warm up by jogging around the field twice. A few of their players often lagged behind. “Malik used to want to quit,” said Powell, King’s mother. King and Lewis wouldn’t let their huge young friend do that, though. “You can’t quit,” they’d tell him. “You came out here for a reason.”

“It was like he was he was our little brother,” said Jourdan Lewis. “He had heel spurs and they used to hurt him a lot. Back then, Malik was finding himself. He really didn’t have his identity yet. We needed him to win, honestly. He had such great talent, but he didn’t understand he could be such a big competitor in the PAL (Police Athletic League) championship.”

McDowell emerged as the most sought-after recruit of the trio, a consensus first-round talent who could’ve gone anywhere but instead opted to stay local, signing with Michigan State. Over the summer, when McDowell and King were back home in Detroit to help out at a local youth football camp, the two old teammates got together for dinner to talk about old times.

“Every time when each of us is at home, we always find our way to meet up,” King said.

Tandy, their old coach, is excited about this season. It’s the senior year for both King and Lewis. Each had the opportunity to leave early for the NFL, neither gave it too much thought. Graduating from college and spending one more season with their teammates was more important.

“It was an eight-minute conversation,” said Powell, King’s mother. “'You’re this close. We’ve been poor before. A couple of months is nothing. I wanna see that degree.’ And he will graduate in December.”

Tandy will get to fulfill a promise he made to King by coming to Iowa for a game to see his protege with his Hawkeye family. It hasn’t been easy since all of King’s games are on Saturdays, just like the Cubs team, but Tandy said he’s going to have to miss one of their games. The plan is for Tandy to attend the Nov. 4 game against Lewis’ Michigan Wolverines.

“I know how Iowa loves him and how he loves the people there,” Tandy said. “I just wanna see him in his home. That kid has done a remarkable job in the relationships he’s developed on and off the field. Truthfully, I’m like a father seeing his son graduate from college. I have so much pride in seeing their dreams come true. It’s a commitment that a lot of folks don’t understand.”

Jourdan Lewis
Jourdan Lewis with William Tandy
Malik McDowell with William Tandy
Jourdan Lewis and Desmond King at Walter Camp All-American dinner