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Ayers shares his personal story to inspire at-risk kids

Wofford coach, who is 'fearful that one of these kids is going to get lost,' talks at Coaches 4 Character meeting 

By Todd Shanesy
todd.shanesy@shj.com
Spartanburg Herald-Journal 
Published: Monday, December 12, 2011

Coach Mike Ayers / Alex Hicks Jr./Spartanburg Herald-JournalGREENVILLE
— The warm-up to a powerful message for at-risk children Monday night was video from some of Wofford football head coach Mike Ayers' most inspirational locker-room speeches of the season.

There was chatter among the kids during the Terriers' game highlights. But when Ayers was shown shouting at players, everybody got quiet.

He had full attention before he even stepped on stage.

“I know a lot of you think I was yelling at them,” Ayers said when he began his speech at the Coaches 4 Character meeting in the TD Convention Center. “I wasn't. I was telling them how much I loved them.”

For the next 30 minutes, Ayers told the kids how much he loved them, too.

He yelled mostly and whispered some, all of it equally loud.

Just like he does for his football team, Ayers inspired and motivated and shared his faith that everyone in front of him will overachieve. Maybe that's not a good word.

To Ayers, there is no such thing as overachieving. There is only achieving.

He said he felt a responsibility to make sure the children knew, regardless of the odds, that success is not only possible but mandatory.

Ayers often speaks to alumni groups and touchdown clubs and banquets and the like. This was different. This was truly something special.

“I'm fearful that one of these kids is going to get lost,” Ayers said afterward. “You hope that you can reach somebody. I'm not trying to be overly, well, anything, but I truly believe that I'm supposed to go out and speak. There is somebody out there who needs it.”

Kids facing unfair burdens quickly realized that Ayers was not just a coach in a suit blowing hot air. He was once one of them.

“I understand that a lot of you have been labeled at-risk,” Ayers said. “I know exactly what that means. I grew up at-risk. I grew up in a family where my mother and father were alcoholics. My mother and father beat on each other. I had a school system that believed I was going one place and one place only — to failure. I had a counselor tell me face-to-face, ‘You're not smart enough to do anything.' I was smart enough not to believe that. I was smart enough to believe in myself.”

At age 14, under his father's orders, Ayers went to work six days per week on a garbage truck. He eventually earned a football scholarship to the local NAIA school, Georgetown (Ky.) College, but that also ended in disappointment.

“I got kicked out,” he said. “Was that anybody's fault but mine? No. … The good news was that I got another full scholarship two weeks later in the United States Marine Corps. When I got off active duty, I thought I had it all figured out. But you know where I went? Back to the garbage truck.”

One day while making the rounds, Ayers said, he was shot in the shoulder by a teenage boy who was even more at-risk.

“I was picking up his garbage,” Ayers said. “He had 10 cans that were turned over and I was cleaning up his mess. And that kid shot me. I told the police I didn't want to press charges. I just wanted the kid to tell me why he shot me. You know what he said? He said, ‘Because you're just a garbage man.'

“He didn't know my heart. He didn't know my dreams. He judged me from what he saw on the outside.”

In these days when we have been overwhelmed by sickening stories of children being abused by coaches, innocence and confidence stolen by these monsters, it was especially refreshing to hear and see Ayers lift these young people into a world in which dreams really do come true.

“It's about how hard you're willing to work,” he said. “Keep your hands on the shovel and keep digging in life. I'm telling you right now that if I can do it, you can do it.”

Reprinted with permission of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal