ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now a football story of a different kind. This one begins in River Rouge, Mich., on a cold Friday night in November.
COREY PARKER: All we have is us. All we have is us.
SIEGEL: Under the lights, the Panthers of River Rouge High are about to play for the district championship.
PARKER: Fight for each other. Love each other. Let's go get it, Rouge.
SIEGEL: Leading them on their way is Coach Corey Parker. For our series 50 Great Teachers, Dustin Dwyer of Michigan Radio has this profile of a man who teaches football and a whole lot more.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Panthers stadium for tonight's district final game.
DUSTIN DWYER, BYLINE: It is two minutes and 40 seconds until kickoff. The players of River Rouge High School are going out on the field. The visitors' side of the stand is packed and the River Rouge side is pretty empty.
The River Rouge Panthers kick off to start the championship game. The first quarter is a struggle.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.
DWYER: On offense, there's a string of dropped passes. On defense, Coach Parkers pulls out a senior defensive player, Miles Campbell, to talk gap assignments.
PARKER: Lower your body. They're running right inside of you.
DWYER: As they talk, the players from Ida march in for the game's first touchdown.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Touchdown for the Streaks.
DWYER: On the sideline, the Panthers look disorganized, hurt and angry. Coaches, too.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You know, all right? OK, Ray Ray, you got Pip.
DWYER: River Rouge is a tough place to grow up. Blocked in on one side by an oil refinery, on the other side are a steel plant and a power plant. The neighborhoods are marked by broken homes, poverty and violence.
PARKER: Go ahead, stretch together, DBs. We got time.
DWYER: A week before the district championship game, I followed the team for a Thursday practice. Coach Parker is a young guy, still as fit as many of his teenage players. He grew up on the east side of Detroit in a neighborhood much like this. Football's what got him out, first to a private high school and then to Eastern Michigan University. He started coaching here in 2009. Immediately, he put a new focus on academics.
PARKER: When I got here, you had so many guys that made a decision to be the thug, the gangbanger. And those were the best athletes in the building. And they always played and started here. I said I'm going to change all of that.
DWYER: Now the goal isn't just to win, but to get players like Miles Campbell to college.
So is Coach Parker talking to you about college?
MILES CAMPBELL: Yes, every day, all day. That's his first focus.
DWYER: Coach Parker gives up practice time to have study hall. He makes decisions on who starts Friday night based on GPA. And last year, Parker says 9 out of 14 graduating seniors earned football scholarships to go to college. In the school where less than two-thirds of young men graduate on time, the football team's GPA this fall was just shy of 3.0.
CAMPBELL: Coach Parker got a lot of ambition and he just want to help kids and just help all these boys become men 'cause there's a lot of them, if it weren't for football they wouldn't have nothing.
ANGELO WHITTIS: When I was younger, I used to play football to take my anger out. Like, it was a pain reliever, you know?
DWYER: This is Angelo Whittis, one of Corey Parker's former players. His story tells you a lot about what kids on this team might be going through and about how far Coach Parker is willing to go to see them succeed. Whittis tells me he never knew his father. His mother was in and out of prison. By high school, he was basically homeless, sleeping on friends' couches, sleeping in cars. But at school, he always kept a smile on his face.
WHITTIS: I never wanted to let nobody know that I was depressed or what I was going through at home. So I would be depressed for days.
PARKER: And that's when he attempted to commit suicide.
DWYER: Parker got updates on Whittis from his wife, who was in medical school at the time at a nearby hospital. Whittis survived. He got help, but two months later Parker got another call, and this time Whittis had been arrested for stealing a bike so he could go get money for food. That's when Parker says he and his wife had a conversation.
PARKER: And I said, well, what do you want to do? And she said, Corey, we have to do something.
DWYER: So the Parkers took Angelo Whittis in. They adopted him.
WHITTIS: I got my first bed I ever slept in my whole life. You know, got clothes. So, I mean, once they started doing all of this I'm thinking to myself I can't just up and leave, you know, the family really cares about me.
DWYER: Whittis graduated high school. Now he's in college. The man he used to call coach, he now calls dad.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Hey, we a family right now. We ain't no team. We a family right now.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Bang on three, bang on three - one, two, three, bang.
DWYER: The halftime clock runs down in the district championship game with the River Rouge Panthers down by two. Their opponents across the field, from Ida, Mich., look more organized, more focused, but the Panthers are used to being underdogs.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Let's go defense. Let's go.
DWYER: On the first drive of the second half, the River Rouge defense makes a stop. From then on, everything goes the Panthers's way.
PARKER: That's my boys, yeah.
DWYER: Final score - Ida 14, River Rouge, 42.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Thank you all for coming out. We'd like Ida for being here.
DWYER: There's one thing that I - I think of you often when I hear people say this - that football's just a game.
PARKER: (Laughter) Oh, no way. No way. Football around here is a tool. If you've never had it - if no man has ever told you that they love you, it's a good strong backbone to let you know you are good enough. You are strong enough. You are smart enough to do anything you want in this world. That's what football is.
DWYER: Corey Parker's version of football - it's not the same one that'll be broadcast around the world this weekend. It's not the version advertisers fight over each other to support, but it's the version that perhaps most has the potential to change lives, to change communities. It's the version that got a kid like him - a kid from a rough neighborhood on the east side of Detroit - through college. And it's the version he'll use to do the same for his players. For NPR News I'm Dustin Dwyer in Grand Rapids, Mich.