A decade ago, Albert Perry, a young athlete from a tough inner city neighborhood in Tampa, Florida, was headed to Texas Southern University. Few doubted that this thousand-yard rusher would one day play collegiate football. But a few weeks after the fall semester began, something went wrong and Albert was back home.
Dejected, Albert talked with one of his biggest supporters, Tyrone Keys. A defensive end for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Diego Chargers, and 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears, Keys spent his summers substitute teaching in Tampa area schools, where he got to know hundreds of students. What Albert told Keys during their talk still haunts him today. “He said, ÔI need to get out of this place or I’m going to die.’ Little did I know how right he was,” recounts Keys.
A few weeks later, Albert Perry was accidentally killed in a drive-by shooting. “At that point, my awareness of these kids reached a new level,” says Keys. “That was the first time someone close to me died.” Keys then understood that getting Tampa’s kids into college was, for some, literally the difference between life and death.
Using his connections as a substitute teacher and his visibility as a professional athlete, Keys took his calling to the classrooms and the streets. He soon found a supporter in Jerry Ulm, the well-known owner of a local Dodge dealership. Ulm agreed to take three students and give them jobs if Keys would mentor them and help them get into college.
Keys took Ulm’s offer and selected three area students. But a few weeks before they were to enter their freshman year at various colleges, a second tragedy struck: Jerry Ulm died of cancer. Before the funeral, however, Ulm’s son contacted Keys and explained how excited his father had been about the program. Then he told Keys that in lieu of flowers, they were asking people to contribute to his cause. “At that point, I just broke down,” says Keys.
With those donations, All Sports Community Service was founded in 1993. To date, All Sports has helped over 350 Tampa Bay area athletes get financial scholarships or grants to attend college.
The program works like this: Keys visits area schools in the fall and explains All Sports’ mission, requirements, and success. After that, Keys says, the onus is on the students to contact the center and make something happen.
“What we do is take a young kid with talent and show him how to market that talent. These kids are creating their own destiny. We are simply the vehicle,” says Keys.
The support occurs at two levels. First, All Sports encourages the use of its resource center, which includes video/film editing equipment, computers, and telephones. High school athletes are taught how to make their own highlight films and how to send them to prospective colleges and universities. Students are also offered a prep course for the ACT and SAT entrance exams. They are taught test taking and essay writing skills and get help with the entire application process.
Second, students are monitored and mentored after they enter college. They are given an AT&T calling card and are expected to make contact with the center weekly. Students must also post satisfactory grades and perform 25 hours of community service every semester. Many students fulfill this by mentoring the next batch of kids working through All Sports’ program. Other have joined the Tampa mayor’s city beautification project or gone back to the inner city to lead sports camps. During the summer, All Sports helps juniors and seniors find targeted internships and helps younger students find jobs.
The key to the program lies in the emphasis on service, especially on giving back to the community. Keys encourages students who complete college to become mentors themselves. “Success is when you’re able to go somewhere and open a door and keep that door open. It’s when you can go back and help somebody else,” he says.
And the evidence of this kind of success is all over. Much like a father with his first-born child, Keys seems to take particular delight in the stories of his first three students. One continued to work at the Jerry Ulm Dodge dealership and eventually was able to place several family members in jobs. Another serves as director of the Boys and Girls Clubs. The third, Thomas Lewis Jr., became assistant vice president of Bank of America and now administers a program similar to All Sports Community Service in the Baltimore area. Lewis works directly with Harry Swain, right tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, who just happened to be his sponsor and mentor when he went through the program.
Lewis recounts his experience getting into college: “It was not the fact that I scored any more points and had any more assists, but it was the fact that someone took enough time to care and help me get to the next step. My job is to continue to pave the road so [other] students can travel to new heights.”
As for Keys, he says that helping kids is a calling. “All they want is an opportunity,” he says, “and I’m going to help them get it.”