Football is Wayne senior's path out of city - and violence-scarred youth
The violence didn't win. It beat him, broke him and scarred him. It was inches away from killing him, like so many young people whose lives have been ripped away at the hands of violence.
But not Craig Young.
The Wayne football senior won – he's alive.
The 64 boys on the Wayne roster are all winning. Not because the team was 5-1 going into Week 7, but because when they're on that football field, head coach Derrick Moore knows they're alive.
Young's lightning-fast routes, the way he swats down passes like gnats in the summertime, and his sheer power to make elite receivers look silly, landed him a one-way ticket to Columbus, Ohio, to play at Ohio State.
More importantly for Young, it's a one-way ticket out of his home on the south side of Fort Wayne.
'I said my last prayers'
Young crawled on the ground, barely able to move. Paralyzed with fear and the three bullets that just struck him. The shooting started and stopped again. This time he couldn't move. He thought, at 15 years old, this was the end.
“I thought that was my last breath. I thought I was just going to die that day,” Young said. “As soon as I got hit, I just said my last prayers and I thought I was going to pass away that night.”
Young felt a negative vibe that November night in 2016. He was with a friend having dinner at her house with her family. It was around midnight when bullets were fired into the south side home. Young was the only one hit. A bullet struck his leg, grazed his elbow and lodged in his left hand. Young said he filed a police report and said while the attack was not random, he didn't know specifically why someone fired into the home.
“I didn't want to get up; I couldn't get up,” Young said. “I didn't want anybody to touch me. I was just scared of everything.”
It was in that moment Young's goal of making it to the top was born.
“This city been good to me, but it's been more bad to me than good,” Young said. “I got shot in this city, one of my closest friends got killed in this city, I lost a lot of people in this city. I can't really trust anything, so for me to provide for me, and my family and friends that I'm taking up with me to the top, it's best for me to get out of the city and live a better life.”
Moore, in his fourth season as head coach, explains to any new staff hires that while you're addressed as coach, you wear many hats.
“You're a dad, an uncle. You're going to have to comfort kids when they're grieving,” Moore said. “You're going to have to be an Uber sometimes.
“I got two girls (his daughters, Dia and Zendaya) and 64 boys.”
When problems arise, the Wayne football coaches juggle those hats to see which fits the situation. When Young was shot, the “coach” hat was left on the shelf.
Young's father and Moore grew up together, played football at Snider together and were college roommates. Moore has known Young since he was born.
“My first thought was as an uncle or godfather,” Moore said. “It was never a football thing. Football becomes not even secondary – tertiary way on down the line when it comes to a shooting or someone almost losing their life.”
He visited Young in the hospital, seeing a scared but motivated kid.
“I think he learned a lesson that night. 'It's not about who you know but where you are, too,' ” Moore said. “I think it put things into perspective for him, but at the same time I think it boosted his confidence in a way. Sometimes being thankful can help make you confident that I've got this talent and God blessed me to do this, so I'm going to take advantage of it.”
Young missed the final three games of his sophomore football season, but miraculously was ready when basketball season came around. The following summer, it was showtime, as Young now calls it.
“That summer was when I blew up with scholarships,” Young said. “That's how I knew I was motivated; that's how I knew that football is really me; it's my life.”
Young craves dominance. Whether he's lined up at wide receiver or on the defensive side, his 6-foot-5, 212-pound frame, deep voice and boisterous personality suggest a kid too big for the city he's trapped in.
“I've been told to kind of curb that, but to me, if a kid from his situation is confident and sure of himself, I try not to take that away,” Moore said. “That's not something you see from a lot of African-American males from the inner city; I love it.”
Young's safest on the field. He said it's all he has.
“Football is an out for probably 90 percent of the kids on the team,” Young said. “When we get between those lines, it's a safe haven for us. You don't have to hear guns, shooting; you're just safe out here.”
Moore knows the south side. He grew up there. He knows the streets where his team walks, the restaurants where they eat at and the houses where they sleep. It's personal for him.
“A lot of the young men, at home isn't the best situation,” Moore said. “I've tried to do my best to inform them just because things aren't going right at home, or you don't have the most money, doesn't mean we have to lose to Dwenger or Luers or Carroll.”
In 2016, 35 of the 48 homicides in Fort Wayne occurred on the south side. On June 21, five months before Young was shot, the 16th homicide of the year claimed the life of 14-year-old Nicholaus Scroggins, shaking everyone involved with Wayne football.
“I think about it every day, I swear I do. Some days I wake up and it still doesn't feel real to me,” Wayne senior running back Devonair Kelsaw said. “I try not to think about it, emotionally, but I'm doing what I'm doing for him because if it were me, he'd be doing the same thing.”
Kelsaw and Scroggins – or “Lil Nick” as they called him – grew up together, best friends.
Scroggins was shot near his home in the 5200 block of Lillie Street. The well-loved soon-to-be eighth grader had his life taken away.
Kelsaw stares off while sitting on the bleachers during practice, thinking about how to describe the man his best friend was supposed to become.
“Why?” he asked. “What had to happen for this to happen to him at 14 years old?
“He was a real goofy and funny type. He loved football just like we do, and that's why we take it so seriously when we play football and dedicate it to him.”
Moore knew Scroggins. He described him as a “future prom king.”
“The potential of what he was to become,” Moore said. “For our older guys, it reminded them once again of the blessings they have. He was a pretty good football player for a young guy.
He reminds them of how lucky and fortunate they are to be in the position they are in.”
When the Generals step on the field, they do it for Scroggins and as a reminder of the statistic they don't want to become.
A better life
Tyan, Carlos, Lil Nick, J.G. – Young spews name after name of friends he's lost through the years.
“It really changes a person,” he said. “It really changes who you surround yourself with. Even if you're just at the wrong time and the wrong place and you're a great person, it can still change your life.”
This summer, before the season started, Moore invited all of the seniors to his house for a cookout. The boys saw a different side of the coach, one that didn't align with many they knew on the south side.
“The way I live my life was eye-opening for them,” he said. “For them to see that if you do go to school and have an education, it's kind of fun to be a teacher and a coach.”
But it's not all fun. It's taxing on a coach. There's no “football for dummies” book that includes how to comfort a grieving player – or team.
“I tell people all of the time we have veterans who seek benefits from PTSD, who have lost soldiers in a war,” Moore said. “We have players, students, kids who have lost five or six of their friends during the course of growing up and aren't receiving any benefits.”
Young said he's considering enrolling early at Ohio State.
“Really just to get out the city first, get out the city fast,” he says. “My story, if you really know me and really know where I come from, it's why I want to get out of the city.”
Young leaps for a pass thrown his way in the second quarter against Snider on Sept. 21. He needs little separation; he towers over most corners covering him. Prancing into the end zone for a 42-yard touchdown reception, Young holds the ball in his left hand and does a little dance as his teammates swarm him. His blue gloves mask the quarter-sized scar on his hand, now a distant memory replaced by the thought of where the ball in that same hand will lead him next.
Elizabeth Wyman is a sports reporter for The Journal Gazette.