Coach gives teenager a home, gets a star QB

RIVER ROUGE, Mich. — Three years ago, Angelo Whittis was reduced to asking friends if he could catch naps in their cars.

He was homeless, living on the streets of Detroit and on a path that could have put him in prison or worse.

That didn’t happen. Instead, Whittis now has a family, a warm bed and the starting quarterback job on a high school playoff team that advanced all the way to the state quarterfinals.

What helped save Whittis was crossing paths with Corey Parker, the head football coach at River Rouge High School, located in a gritty, industrial town on the outskirts of Detroit.

Parker took Whittis off the streets, became a father to him and helped him become a star quarterback and an honor-roll student who is on course to attend college next fall.

“There are no limits on Angelo because he’s been through the toughest things he’ll ever face,” Parker said. “Anyone who can go through in an entire lifetime (of) what this kid has been through and still be standing — that’s an amazing person.”

Whittis is the first to admit that he’s made some bad decisions in his life, but he’s been fighting an uphill battle since the day he was born.

“I never knew my father and my mother was in and out of the system, so my grandma and uncle took me in when I was born,” he said. “My grandma had a drinking problem and my uncle had a drinking problem, so I had good days with them and bad days with them. I never knew how it was going to be or when they were going to take the bad days out on me.”

Well into his teens, Whittis was passed from family member to family member, never getting to settle down in a single home.

“I was switching from city to city and neighborhood to neighborhood,” he said. “There were times where I didn’t know where I was going to eat and I didn’t know where I was going to sleep. I would go to a new place and not know how long it was going to be before they got tired of me and put me out.”

When Whittis started at Melvindale High School, not far from River Rouge, his situation got even worse. He played linebacker on the football team, but it wasn’t a priority in his life. He was more interested in the groups he ran with on the streets — groups that put him on the path to potential tragedy.

“I was making dumb decisions because I was trying to find cliques where I fit in,” he said. “A lot of the time, I was on the street because people were expecting me to follow the rules at their house and I didn’t like that.

“I had to ask friends if I could sleep for a couple hours in their cars or their houses. That’s all I had.”

After his sophomore season at Melvindale, he considered switching high schools. That’s when he visited River Rouge and met Parker.

“He was hanging around the weight room with some of our players, and I started talking to him,” Parker said. “At first, I was just showing him some things he could do in with the weights, but after a while I was offering him a ride home. That gave us a chance to talk and get to know each other.”

Parker grew concerned when he found himself dropping Whittis off at several different locations, but he didn’t step in until Whittis’ life really began to spiral out of control. In the late summer, Parker found himself at the emergency room with Whittis after a suicide attempt. He then helped his troubled protégé with a legal issue.

“There was a point when Angelo didn’t love himself — he didn’t like himself at all — and some terrible things began to happen,” Parker said. “After he got himself into some legal trouble — he got a ticket for doing some bad things — that’s when I knew he needed some guidance and more leadership in his life. He might have been getting some, but he wasn’t getting enough.”

That’s when Parker asked Whittis to move into his home — not as a tenant but as a son.

“When my wife gave me the go-ahead, I asked Angelo to join our family,” Parker said. “I told him, and this has become our slogan, that this was about making him better. That’s what we do every day. Not just make him better as a football player, but better as a person.”

Parker’s offer changed Whittis’ life in almost every way.

“It meant everything to me,” he said. “It made me feel like I was special. It was the first time that I felt like I was someone important.”

At Melvindale, without parental guidance, Whittis was a mediocre linebacker with grades that often left him in danger of being ineligible. Now, along with being the starting quarterback on a district champion, he’s an honor-roll student who works with his teammates to boost their grades.

“He came to our school with a 1.5 or 1.6 grade-point average, but in his junior year at River Rouge, he had a 3.78,” Parker said. “He’s become a leader — the player who gets on his teammates and checks their progress reports to make sure they are working hard. That’s just what a coach wants from his quarterback.”

Not only did Parker work harder in the classroom, he also started taking football more seriously. He put on 30 pounds of muscle before his senior season and worked endlessly on his passing skills. He’s also become a stellar linebacker.

“He’s been amazing — he weighed 208 pounds last year, and he blew that out to 238 pounds with some hard weightlifting over the summer,” Parker said. “I cannot lift with my kid any more — he’s too strong. He’s gotten himself to the point where I feel bad for any linebacker that has to try to tackle him.”

That improvement has helped Whittis lead River Rouge (11-1) to its first district title. Although the school is a perennial basketball powerhouse, the football program always has struggled.

“I always wanted to be a quarterback, and Coach Parker has helped me do this,” Whittis said. “I wasn’t the biggest and I wasn’t the strongest and I sure wasn’t the smartest. But I went to passing camp, and Coach Parker and the other coaches worked with me. That’s when I realized this was something I could do.”

The biggest adjustment for Whittis wasn’t learning to play quarterback, or even finding his footing academically. For the first time in his life, he’s had to learn how to be part of a family.

“When I was first here, I would take a shower and then go into my room,” he said. “But then I realized that this family had opened itself up to me, and I owed them the same thing. Now, I feel like they had me as a baby — no one would ever be able to tell that I wasn’t always their kid.”

When Parker and his wife, Autumn, took Whittis in — there wasn’t a legal adoption because he’s 18 — they became a three-person home. Today, with the recent addition of Corey Parker Jr., they’re a family of four.

“I wasn’t sure how Angelo was going to react having a baby in the house, after everything he’s been through, but he’s already turned into a great big brother,” Parker said. “He’s still not big on changing diapers, but he’s always there to help when my wife needs him.”

In less than a year, Whittis will face another challenge — one he never dreamed about until the past couple of years. He’ll be leaving the only steady home he’s ever had to move to a college campus.

“That’s going to be hard for all of us, but it will be really tough on Angelo,” Parker said. “He’s such a big baby that I expect him to be calling me every day to complain about stuff in the dorms and stuff he can’t afford to do, but it is going to be great for him.”

Whittis doesn’t know yet where he’ll go to college. For a change, he’s just excited about the future.

“There are times that I’ve thought about how things might have turned out, but I try to keep that out of my mind,” Whittis said. “I know that everything that I’ve gone through has matured me and that I’m ready. I can’t wait to see what the next part of my life has in store for me.

“I can’t wait to see where I can go.”