Tyrone Keys | A Legacy of Faith, Hope, and Love

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By Peggy Wall and Barbara Hamilton

Tyrone Keys is not average—not in his size, not in his character, and certainly not in his commitment. A poet once wrote, “The measure of a man is not in his living; the measure of a man can be found in his giving.” And Tyrone has given much. He has bought into the hopes and dreams of other people and has left a giant handprint etched into the fabric of countless lives. “My ultimate goal in life all along,” he says, “has been to help young people the way my teachers and coaches helped me.”

That help first appeared when Tyrone was a sixth-grader at Dawson Elementary School in west Jackson. The year was 1970, and the changes brought about in the schools impacted children in negativity and unrest. Though guided by loving parents, Shelton and Johnnie Ruth Keys, for the first time in his life Tyrone felt a need of self-worth and self-confidence, a need to feel pride in who he was and in his hopes and dreams. In the midst of the confusion and fear fostered by changing times, those needs were met by a young teacher assigned to his class.

Mary Hagan was the first white teacher at all-black Dawson. “She was the first white person I had ever spoken to,” Tyrone remembers. On the first day of school their new teacher told them they were all going to be just fine. She told them it was good to have dreams, and they could accomplish those dreams, for they had talents and abilities and a special purpose in life.

“No teacher had ever told us that before,” Tyrone says, “but we believed her.” Mrs. Hagan planted possibilities in Tyrone’s mind, and he never forgot them.

He never forgot her scampering around the playground, trying to convince the boys she knew football. “She didn’t know the game,” Tyrone laughs, “but boy, did she know how to connect with her students.” He remembers the character and integrity she displayed every time she stood before the class even while being harassed and threatened by vicious outsiders. “It was as though Mrs. Hagan had come to show us what faith and courage looked like. She was willing to invest love in her students, and that investment has made all the difference in the world to me,” he says.

Thirty-nine years after he moved on from the sixth grade, the two reconnected and have joined together to speak to educators across the country about the importance of mentoring children. They talk about connecting hearts as well as minds, and about creating in them a desire to help others like they were helped.

Other Mentors

Tyrone is honored by MSU School of Education as Alumnus of the Year. Left to Right: Coach Randall, Callaway HS Coach Jenkins, Trainer Strat Karratassos, English teacher Mrs. Minchew, mother Johnnie Ruth Keys, and daughter Chyla.

Mary Hagan wasn’t the only teacher to leave a lasting impression on Tyrone. His high school football coach at Callaway, Odell Jenkins, also saw something special in him. Not only did he make sure Tyrone played his best on the field, but he held him accountable for the way he conducted himself off the field as well. Tyrone credits Jenkins with developing in him a true appreciation of character and commitment. “He once told me, ‘Sow a thought . . . reap a word. Sow a word . . . reap an action. Sow an action . . . reap a destiny. Sow a destiny . . . reap a character.’ That advice has influenced the way I’ve tried to structure my life.”

Coach Jenkins was instrumental in Tyrone’s scholarship offer to Mississippi State, and he shared his belief in the importance of mentoring. He told Tyrone his success meant nothing if he didn’t return to help someone else. “I knew what he meant,” Tyrone says, “because he always wanted me to understand that I had a duty to help my fellow students who were struggling. But I had no idea that philosophy would be where I would ultimately find God’s purpose for my life.”

Godly mentors like Mary Hagan and Odell Jenkins encouraged Tyrone to accomplish things that were before, only dreams in a kid’s heart. They planted seeds of love and compassion. They helped him, pushed him, and inspired him. Most of all, they believed in him, and he will be the first to tell you that’s something you can’t put a price tag on.

At Mississippi State, Tyrone did his best to honor the faith and love his family, coaches, and teachers had placed in him, and he was determined to do his best for his team and the university. He was recognized and honored for his outstanding play as a defensive lineman and was selected All-SEC for three years. Later Tyrone would win his most treasured award, the SEC Story of Character Award. But those honors are not what he remembers most.

The greatest and most indelible memory Tyrone has of his college career is the Mississippi State-Alabama game of 1980 when the Crimson Tide, sporting a 22-game winning streak and a national #1 ranking, pulled into Memorial Stadium in Jackson. With only twenty-two seconds left in the game, State led 6-3, but Alabama was on State’s four-yard line. When the ball was snapped, Tyrone slammed into the quarterback and jarred the ball loose. State recovered the fumble and preserved one of the greatest upsets ever in collegiate football.

But to Tyrone, what happened after the game completely eclipsed anything that had occurred during it. “The door to our locker room opened, and in walked Bear Bryant. The room grew quiet, and what followed,” Tyrone recalls, “was the greatest example of character and sportsmanship I had ever witnessed. With a thousand fans jeering at him, he walked all the way across the field to congratulate not just our coach, but our team. Now that was class.”

Bear Bryant never knew the impact of his gesture of respect that day, but Tyrone savored the moment and safely tucked it away, determined his life would display the same qualities he had witnessed in that locker room.

Translating the Life Lessons

In the spring of 1981 the New York Jets drafted Tyrone, but he opted instead to play in the Canadian Football League. Two years later he was signed by the Chicago Bears. “I felt like I was on top of the world with the Bears. We were treated like royalty by the people of Chicago and the Bear organization, and quite honestly, we thought we deserved it because we were good—really good.” But on a Monday night the Miami Dolphins soundly defeated the undefeated Bears on national television, and suddenly they weren’t so invincible any more.

After the game, Coach Ditka told the team they could let the defeat eat away at them, or they could use it as a springboard for a great comeback. The decision was theirs. They finished the season without another loss and defeated the New England Patriots 46-10 in the Super Bowl. They even found time to record the rap video, The Super Bowl Shuffle, which helped get their swagger back while entertaining America and raising over $300 thousand dollars for needy families in the Chicago area.

Tyrone often shares that experience with kids because he believes they need to know that everyone has setbacks. The important thing is what happens next. They can resent them, become angry, blame someone else, or they can make up their minds to turn those negative setbacks into positive comebacks. He adds, “I like to tell them about Peter, who thought he was the most faithful follower of Jesus. Yet, in a moment of weakness, the Bible says Peter denied even knowing Jesus. A setback of gigantic proportions! But he worked at it, turned that mistake around, and became the rock Jesus used to build his church on. What a comeback!”

Tyrone knows that kids need to hear truths like that and understand Peter was not trapped in a black hole . . . and neither are they. There is a way out, but it’s up to them. Like the Bears, they can completely reverse a devastating setback.

When most players and fans celebrated after the Super Bowl game, Tyrone found himself walking down a street in New Orleans thinking about being a champion at the pinnacle of his career and having done what thousands of players had only dreamed about. But something was missing. “I should have been dancing down that street,” he says, “but there I was just walking . . . and thinking.” At that moment a thought pierced his mind, A Super Bowl is just a Super Bowl. There is more, much more to life!

“I realized God had just spoken to me and had introduced me to His vision for my life, but I knew if He wanted us to be on the same page, He’d have to give me a clearer picture than that.”

By the next year Tyrone was no longer a Chicago Bear but a Tampa Bay Buccaneer—from the best team in football to the worst. “I felt a lot like Abraham. God called him to leave his home, his comfort, wealth and security and go to a place he’d never heard of, to people who could offer him nothing.” The only thing Tyrone had to stand on was the seed of faith that had been planted in him years before. At that point, he hoped it was enough.

His career in Tampa Bay lasted only two seasons before he was traded to San Diego. “I didn’t know what God was doing, but when I was leaving Tampa, I heard from Him again. Tyrone, this is not all there is. It is only the beginning. But the beginning of what?

A career-ending injury forced Tyrone’s retirement in 1990. He headed back to Tampa with the feeling God was moving him toward counseling and coaching. “I remembered the coaches I had in high school, and I wanted to be just like them. I wanted to love kids the way they did and be a positive influence on them.”

The Call to Mentoring

He must have done something right, for soon kids from all over Tampa were seeking his help and advice on how to get to college by way of a scholarship—the only way disadvantaged kids with their background could even think about college. Most were from poor, broken homes, rough neighborhoods, and an environment where “success” was a strange, unfamiliar word. The parents were largely uneducated so the kids had been taught to “settle,” and the cycle of despair was never broken but repeated over and over.

One such kid was Albert Perry, an outstanding high school football player in Tampa with the potential of playing big time on the college level. He desperately wanted to play ball and escape his hopeless environment. Tyrone helped the boy with his admissions application, made a highlight film of his games, and worked to get him a scholarship to Texas Southern University. What Tyrone didn’t know was that the boy didn’t have a way to get there so he never went.

On April 25, 1993 at a block party in a housing project, Albert playfully squirted someone with a water gun. That someone pulled a real gun and fired. Albert was struck in the back as he tried to get away. He died on the way to the hospital. “Nothing in my life had ever affected me so profoundly,” Tyrone recalls. “What else could I have done? It was the defining moment in my life when I realized something had to be done. I knew the reclaiming of young lives had to start somewhere, so it might as well start with me.”

But Tyrone didn’t know how, and he didn’t know where. God had all the answers, so Tyrone knew he had to place his trust in Him for wisdom and guidance. Jerry Ulm, Sr., owner of Jerry Ulm Dodge in Tampa, heard about Tyrone’s commitment to youth and wanted to help some of the students with summer jobs. The only requirement was that they, too, would serve as mentors. Ulm hired 3 students that summer: T.J. Lewis, who later graduated from Queens College and became a Vice President of Bank of America; Eric Hayes, who graduated from the University of Baltimore and became head basketball coach in Pasco County, Florida; and Jerald Mack, who later received a degree from the University of Phoenix and has now provided a group home for disadvantaged adults in the Tampa.

Ulm and Tyrone got to know each other. Tyrone saw Ulm’s compassion and love, and Ulm saw Tyrone’s. Ulm gave Tyrone a check which became seed money for the mentoring program. Summer ended and the three students made it safely to college. Tyrone stopped by the dealership to thank Ulm for his generosity and was told that Ulm was in the hospital. Tyrone sat in the showroom and wrote him a letter of gratitude for showing the three young men that people cared about them. Later that week Tyrone got a call from Jerry Ulm, Jr. He mentioned that his dad had read Tyrone’s letter. He then said that his dad had passed away and that the family thought so much of what Tyrone was doing that in lieu of flowers they asked that all dealerships in the Southeast, family and friends, send their memorial gifts to Tyrone’s organization. At that time Tyrone did not have a foundation, but this action on the part of the Ulm family sparked the interest of many people in the Tampa area.

Tyrone attended the funeral service, and his life has never been the same. As Jerry Ulm, Jr. gave the eulogy, he spoke about a man who had come into his dad’s life that summer, and as he was speaking, Tyrone felt the atmosphere changing. Jerry began to read a letter, Tyrone’s letter. Tyrone realized that the power of love—the love of God and the love of others—is what we all must have to fulfill our destiny.

All Sports Community Service

Because of the generosity and encouragement of the Ulm family, All Sports Community Service, ASCS, was founded in 1993. What Tyrone has learned on his quest is that everyone is born with a dream and each of us has a distinct design. Tyrone blocked a lot of passes fulfilling a childhood dream of success in football, but God had a unique dream or vision to give purpose and meaning to his quest for real and true success. He learned that people have been assigned by God to help each other. Who could have known that at the same time Tyrone had a vision of mentoring at-risk students, Coach Kenneth Muldrow, a coach at Tampa’s Blake High School whom Tyrone had met in 1987, had the same vision? God brought them together, and ASCS became a hub of the Blake campus.

Longtime friend and college roommate, Mike McEnany, said, “Tyrone finds kids sleeping in cars, and the next thing you know they are graduating from college.” Tyrone has a God-given gift of knowing who to help and how to help. For Tyrone, help began at Dawson Elementary in 1970, then Callaway in 1975, Mississippi State University in 1980 and the Chicago Bears in 1985. Through those years he realized that our dreams will be tested for authenticity to make sure we are up to the task. We must learn to let the opposition strengthen us, not stop us.

Students of today can reach out and grab hold of a life of great possibilities, but they have to be shown how. At ASCS they are encouraging students by helping them “thrive” not “strive.” Failure should not be normal. Mediocrity should not be acceptable. ASCS wants the young people not only to succeed but also to return to their roots and mentor the next generation. That’s the way it has played out in Tyrone’s life. He has found that real greatness is a matter of integrity, work ethic, treatment of others, right motives and a level of initiative. It also has to do with a person’s character, contributions, talents, creativity and discipline. Tyrone believes your character represents who you are every day-not just who you are when you earn a temporary achievement.

Tyrone started out helping three young men get summer jobs. All the while he talked with them about their goals, their dreams and how to reach them. He used the same words, the same methods that Mrs. Hagan and Coach Jenkins used with him. The words and methods worked. Why? Because the words of love, faith and encouragement are timeless. Tyrone uses those words often when he comes back to the Jackson area in speaking to church and civic groups. He continues to reach out to needy students at Dawson Elementary by providing backpacks and school supplies. Beyond that, his future goal is to replicate the Tampa foundation in Jackson and across America.

From helping three young people, ASCS has now helped over 1,000 students go to college with scholarships totaling over $22 million. Many of the ASCS alumni have given back with scholarship money for the next round of student applicants. The blessing of this approach is that students who never saw college as an option are now college graduates. Students who came from disadvantaged living environments are now homeowners and business leaders.

Jesus often referred to having faith, even if only the size of a mustard seed. Having faith gives us the foundation we need to thrive. He also spoke of the importance of providing fertile soil to nurture the seed of faith. Who does the planting? We do. Who does the nurturing? We, in partnership with God, do. Who provides the increase, the fruit? He does. What does the fruit provide? New seeds. The process is simple. God never intended it to be difficult. And Tyrone also states it simply: “I’ve spent half of my life playing football because someone saw some potential in me, and I’ve spent another twenty years seeking out the potential in others, namely at-risk kids. To me, these kids represent endless possibilities. Within each one of them there is tremendous power waiting to be unleashed. I’ve found nothing more gratifying than to see a student finally come into his own. It’s possible for anyone with a big enough dream and a strong faith in God to accomplish unbelievable results.” Can he have an “Amen”?

To find out more about Tyrone Keys and All Sports Community Service, visit his website: www.allsportscommunity.org or follow Tyrone on Facebook.