Luke DeCock

A ‘Blind Side’ hit you could see coming

It’s still unreal to Phillip Haynes. Being at Wake Forest. Seeing his name atop the depth chart at right tackle. Preparing for his college debut against Elon.

At this time four years ago, Haynes had never played a down of football. Now he’s starting in the ACC. It’s hard to believe. He can barely believe it himself.

And he freely admits he wouldn’t be here without the intervention of a basketball coach who, inspired by the movie “The Blind Side,” tried to help out a couple of kids who needed a hand.

“I wouldn’t be here playing tackle in the ACC because I wouldn’t be working nearly as hard,” Haynes said. “I had to grow up. And it taught me a lot of valuable lessons.”

If Haynes’ story sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because a story about North Raleigh insurance broker and basketball coach Steve Sterrett and his attempts to help two of his players ran in the News & Observer on New Year’s Day 2012. Sterrett raised money to send Haynes and Abdul Sesay to North Raleigh Christian Academy in an attempt to open doors for them that wouldn’t have been open otherwise.

Their situations were difficult: Haynes’ mother is on disability and had trouble getting him to school and basketball practice; Sesay is a refugee from Sierra Leone, one of five siblings. Neither could afford private school or the tutoring and mentoring that came with it. At the time, Sterrett talked about “Blind Side X 20,” trying to help many more kids in the same manner.

Sterrett said the article spurred about $2,000 in donations, which helped cover tuition for Haynes and Sesay through the end of their sophomore years. Sterrett got as far as putting together a board of directors for an expanded program, but Sterrett was preoccupied with the Wake County Basketball Association and his own kids, and momentum fizzled.

We write stories like this all the time, about people full of hopes and dreams and optimism. And often, this is also where they end: Momentum fizzles. Grand plans never materialize. Life intervenes.

This one actually has a happy ending.

“It worked for these two guys,” Sterrett said. “In hindsight I wish we’d continued the momentum. Because we did have momentum.”

‘It did help me a lot’

Sesay left NRCA after his sophomore year. He ran for more than 1,700 yards in two seasons at Heritage High School. After graduating, he spent a semester at Wake Tech before transferring to UNC-Pembroke, where he joined the football team for the spring game but is academically ineligible this fall. He looks back to the two years he spent alongside Haynes at NRCA with fondness.

“I think it did help me a lot, just being around good people,” Sesay said. “I was able to make good choices back at public school, stay away from a lot of trouble going on at school, just be disciplined. I was doing really well at Pembroke. My first year balancing football and school, it was just hard. I just have a lot of growing up to do.”

Haynes spent one more year at NRCA before landing a basketball scholarship to Virginia Episcopal Academy in Lynchburg, where he reclassified as a junior to improve his recruiting prospects. Basketball was, and remains, his first love. But students at Virginia Episcopal are required to play a sport each season, so Haynes was stuck with football. And he got better.

He had a dozen mid-major basketball offers, and his choice of Big South schools. When Wake Forest offered him a football scholarship as a defensive lineman last June, Haynes realized there are a lot of 6-foot-6 power forwards who are built like linemen, but there aren’t many 6-foot-6 linemen who can move like a power forward.

Demon Deacons coach Dave Clawson and his staff liked Haynes so much, they encouraged him to graduate with his original class, fearing Haynes would be poached if he went back for his senior year. Haynes liked the idea, so he took one summer-school gym class back in Raleigh to finish – his high-school diploma is from Enloe High School, where he would have gone had Sterrett never intervened, where he never played a second of football or basketball – and enrolled at Wake Forest last fall.

‘Prototypical tackle’

Once Wake’s coaches got him on campus and saw him practice, he was quickly moved to offensive line. Listed as the starter at left tackle coming out of spring practice, he was moved to right tackle earlier this month. In one year at Wake Forest, he has gone from 265 to 295 pounds.

That may have ended his basketball dreams for good – Haynes said he won’t try to walk on to Danny Manning’s team after football season: “I’m almost 300 pounds,” he joked. “I can barely get up and down the court” – but it opened doors in football that he never knew were there.

A project inspired by “The Blind Side” may have generated another offensive lineman with pro potential.

“He could be your prototypical tackle,” Clawson said. “He’s basically been a full-time football player for two years. His skill set is everything you’d want an offensive tackle to have. … He’ll go through some growing pains this year, but it isn’t going to be because of a lack of talent or lack of want-to.”

There are people Haynes grew up with who aren’t in college now, who dropped out of high school or graduated and got jobs. He can see an alternate reality for himself, where that’s the path he followed.

Instead, he’s beginning his second year of college at Wake Forest. Not even he knows where football may now take him, but he knows enough to be open to the possibilities.

“I was stubborn,” Haynes said. “I never wanted to play football. Just be open to everything in life – sports, people, everything. Make the best of your situation and you never know what will happen. Work hard in everything you do, and you just might end up in the ACC playing tackle.”

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

Four years later

The N&O article about Phillip Haynes, Abdul Sesay and Steve Sterrett ran on Jan. 1, 2012, while Haynes and Sesay were sophomores at North Raleigh Christian Academy. In this excerpt, Haynes’ football career got off to a rough start.

Because of his height and bulk, Haynes is a basketball player first – he is second on the team in scoring this winter – but he joined the football team for the first time this fall. It proved to be as much of a learning process as anything else he has been through in high school.

When told to get a player to the ground by any means necessary, he’d grab him by the face mask. He once wrapped an opponent in a bear hug, then let him go without tackling him, thinking his job was done.

But as Haynes adjusted, his natural ability started to shine through. In one game, an opposing running back broke through the line on the opposite side of the field from where Haynes was playing. He took off after the back, who had a 5-yard head start, and ran him down from behind. “He jumped on him like Spider-Man,” NRCA coach Chris Rivera said.

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