FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. — It’s 20 minutes before kickoff at North Farmington High School and the line to get into the stadium is more than 100 deep. Most of the students are already inside.
And the student section is anticipating an arrival.
The big, gold “23” chain around his neck gives him away, even though it takes a minute for the students to realize he arrived. Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay announced his appearance a couple of days earlier on Twitter after asking his 74,000-plus followers, as usual, what high school football game he should attend Friday night. A week earlier, he drove over an hour to go to Port Huron — the limits of his devotion. North Farmington is much closer to Slay’s suburban Detroit home.
As he saunters toward the sidelines while players warm up, the student section begins to cheer.
“Big Play Slay. Big Play Slay.” It continues for almost a full minute, louder than most chants that night. This is becoming standard for the 28-year-old cornerback. Almost every Friday in the fall and twice weekly in winter, Slay can be found on football fields and in basketball gyms throughout southeast Michigan, and he estimates he has attended over 60 high school football and basketball games over the past three-plus years.
“I love high school, love seeing [kids] develop into players, love seeing the potential of kids, so it was a good thing,” Slay says. “Like, I love high school ball.”
This is Slay’s way of giving back to a community he knew nothing about when he was drafted by Detroit in the second round in 2013. As he turned into a starter and began to ascend as a pro, he sought ways to be valuable with his time and help young athletes.
A hamstring injury in 2016 forced Slay to miss two games, including a trip to Houston. It ended up creating this hobby. Looking for something to do while he wasn’t traveling, Slay inquired about what high school game he should see.
He was told Cass Tech — a local powerhouse — had a player named Donovan Peoples-Jones worth watching.
“I saw him in the stands, and I caught an interception that game and he saw it,” said Peoples-Jones, now a receiver at the University of Michigan. “I tweeted him back and asked if he saw that. He’s like, ‘Yeah, but you gotta score that, though.'”
Slay later went to the state title game at Ford Field to watch Peoples-Jones and started a friendship.
“I just wanted to go to good games overall,” Slay said. “You know, I didn’t know the city like that. I didn’t know a good area to watch football, to watch basketball at. So I started bringing it to social media life.”
Slay has a routine. He combs game suggestions after asking Twitter. When he sees one of interest, he searches the school’s location. Then he puts it in his GPS.
If it is no more than an hour away — one group of fans tried to get him to travel three hours for a game, which he declined — he considers it. Once he selects a game, he connects with the athletic director or principal to say he’s coming, to find out where to park and to make sure he doesn’t have to wait in line. He learned this the hard way after searching 20 minutes for a spot at a University of Detroit Jesuit hoops game and, after finding one, almost not getting in when the gym was at capacity.
Once there, he is a boon for the school. Talk to a team before a game? Sure. Do the coin toss, like at North Farmington vs. Farmington? Not a problem. He’s glad to help.
“It means a lot to the kids and the community to get that type of recognition and a player of his caliber to come on out to the game and support high school football and really the sport in general,” North Farmington coach Jon Herstein said.
At North Farmington, “Mr. Darius Slay,” as the referee calls him, walks out for the coin toss. Jireh Alexander, one of Farmington’s captains, tells Slay he’s a big fan.
Then the photos start, including one with an unexpected group.
“You know you want to get your picture taken with officials,” the head referee tells him. Five days earlier, the Lions had lost to Green Bay, in part because of questionable officiating. Slay laughs. Photo snapped. It’s among the first of the hundreds he takes.
Sometimes it’s a picture, an autograph or both.
Cheerleaders ask for a photo. The North Farmington mascot runs over and takes a photo — once with his mascot head on and another with the head off. Sign. Selfie. Sign. Selfie. Slay goes rapid-fire, interacting with everyone. His back to the field, he sees none of the first quarter of the game.
He autographs cellphone cases, one of his rookie cards, jerseys, a Pepsi can and, oddly, shoes students took off their feet for his signature. One kid asks him to sign a vape pen — a rare time when Slay says no.
“One kid told me to sign his arm. One kid told me to sign his head,” Slay says later, speaking of his weirder lifetime requests. “This lady told me to sign her baby. I’m like, ‘I’m not going to sign babies.’ Then dudes be taking off their shoes, and I’m like, ‘Bro, like, some of you all feet be stinking, like not the shoe. Not the shoe.’
“One time I was signing, people didn’t have other stuff, and I’m like, ‘I can’t sign no more shoes.’ It gets kind of nasty.”
At basketball games last year, Slay brought his own bobbleheads from a previous Lions promotion to sign and give away because he had extras.
When Slay first attended games, he could do so in relative peace. He sat in the stands for football games, hoodie up. During basketball games he sat at the top of the bleachers in a corner. Sometimes fans noticed, sometimes not.
Pro Bowl appearances led to a larger profile and less anonymity. Schools offered him security. He declined. He wants to interact with fans. Slay spends the first half on the home side and then walks over, at halftime, to the visiting side to sign more autographs before usually leaving midway through the third quarter.
Going into the stands at football games now is a rarity. At North Farmington, the only time he ventured in is when his friend, comedian Haha Davis, persuaded him to enter the student section for a few minutes. It set off a frenzy and eventually fans chased after him as he left. Slay never had something quite like that happen before.
Slay didn’t meet his first NFL player until he was in college at Mississippi State. It’s partly why he creates this high school experience: to give people something he never had.
“As my name got bigger and bigger at what I do, it got crazy,” Slay said. “The biggest one I had was [Port Huron]. I’ve signed a good bit, but probably signed so much I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ My hand started hurting.
“And I didn’t get to watch not one part of the game.”
Slay signs autographs the whole first quarter at North Farmington. With 11:53 left in the first half, the frenzy slows. For the first time all year, despite going to games weekly, he’s left alone and can watch some high school football. It’s short-lived. Another group of kids see him. The cheerleaders want him to join in for a dance — he engages the conversation but does not participate. Then Slay turns around and walks back to the fence.
Time to sign again.
Slay will play Xbox with kids he meets at games, and earlier this year, Kam Register, then a recent graduate at Howell, asked Slay to come to his graduation party. Slay showed up, stayed for three hours and gave him gloves he’d worn in the Pro Bowl.
But it’s the support he is able to offer schools and students that matters the most. He’ll offer football camps, for free, for local athletes interested on Twitter and told the Cass Tech and King receivers to come to a Lions game. They talked trash to him at a game, saying they wanted to line up against him, and he wants to give them that chance.
“Tips and stuff like that, some kids that I worked out with, that I do my little DB drills with, they still contact me,” Slay said. “… So some of the guys I worked with and showed off some drills with, they’ll send me some of their film on Twitter and I’ll check it out, look at it. Give them my pointers, my feedback, tell them what they can do better.”
Peoples-Jones still asks him for advice on trying to leverage defensive backs. Slay likes keeping connections. He first talked with Michigan State freshman guard Rocket Watts after watching him play basketball his junior year at Old Redford High. Slay is planning to drive to East Lansing to watch Duke play the Spartans, and Watts, next week.
“Overall, for a high school player, they look up to dudes like that and it just means a lot to them,” Watts said. “Just knowing that a dude in the NFL that has already been in your shoes, to reach out to you and have somebody like that you can talk to and, you know, get advice and stuff like that.
“It means a lot.”
The high school athletes notice. Peoples-Jones, the player Slay has probably gotten closest to, has started using his celebrity as a Michigan football player to try to go to high school and youth games as well.
“Just the kind of player he is, doing the things he does around Detroit, it just makes everyone respect him a little bit more and shows his true character,” Peoples-Jones said. “Even me, I try to think of guys who set the bar high and I try to set that same bar with me.
“It’s Little League. It’s high school players. If I can go to a high school game and see some Little League players and if I can give words of advice and just be there for them if they ever need me, I feel like I’m doing the same thing he does for me.”
Published at Wed, 27 Nov 2019 12:57:53 +0000