The procession moved slowly through the heart of downtown Detroit, following the same path other championship parades had traveled in the past. There was a marching band dressed in full-game attire. A step team moved with rhythmic precision. There was a makeshift float, pulled by a U-Haul pick-up truck filled with bundled-up cheerleaders fighting to keep their smiles in the face of the bitter winter wind that would soon turn driving rain into sleet.
Even celebrating in Detroit is rarely easy.
But the weather -- and the smiles -- were both appropriate considering the historic plight of the Cass Tech High School football team that brought up the rear of the cavalcade.
Huddled together inside an open-air bus blaring Kanye West lyrics into the air, the newly minted state champions winded down Woodward Avenue, hailed as the first team representing a Detroit Public School to capture a title in the Michigan High School Athletic Association's largest division.
They had defied the odds, overcoming three losses in the regular season before making a playoff run that culminated with a 49-13 dismantling of perennial powerhouse Detroit Catholic Central.
But that was not the end of the triumph for Cass Tech, as they would face hints of hatred and insensitivity, anger and bitterness. Days after the Technicians hoisted the state championship trophy at Ford Field over Thanksgiving weekend, a venomous letter addressed to Cass Tech coach Thomas Wilcher arrived in the mail.
The three-paragraph note, typed on plain white paper and signed by its author, referred to Cass Tech players as "ghetto warriors" who may have had their day, but would be losers in life.
"It is clear that (Detroit Public Schools) is a failure," the letter stated. "In five years, your players will be unemployed, in jail, addicted to drugs or worse. In a word -- failures."
It was a message that, unfortunately for Wilcher's players, was far from foreign.
But in a city that loves a fight and loves an underdog even more, the letter would only be motivation to keep their championship run going well past graduation day.
"You're always going to have what you call haters," Wilcher says, standing feet in front of a city landmark known as The Spirit of Detroit. "But anytime you've got a hater and they approach you, you have to look beyond that and think of the positives that you can make out of it."
After a year of economic rebirth, Detroiters are starting to ignore what's being said about them -- by the famous and the anonymous. Terry Richardson, a senior defensive back on Cass Tech who was recently named to the Detroit Free Press' Dream Team, makes no bones about his hometown pride. Yes, there are struggles. But if you're willing to work for them, there are solutions.
"Being from Detroit is a beautiful thing," Richardson says. “The one thing about this city is that we are tight -- we all work together in pretty much everything we do."
That was evident throughout Cass Tech's historic state championship run. By winning the title, the Technicians became only the second Detroit Public School to capture a state crown.
King High School won a state championship in 2007, blazing a trail that Wilcher said opened doors for programs like his. Wilcher, a former University of Michigan running back, has stressed the importance of playing together and for one another, knowing in most cases, opponents will do their best to look past a school from Detroit's inner city.
The graduation rate among DPS students is 62 percent. A study completed earlier this year at Michigan State University's Education Policy Center finds that only 31.9 percent of Detroit students will graduate in four years.
But at Cass Tech, one of three magnet schools within the city, things are different. Last year, the graduation rate at the school was 95.5 percent. At Cass Tech, students must pass an entrance exam to be admitted and must maintain a grade point average of 2.5 not just to be eligible, but to remain enrolled. It's a school twice recognized by the U.S. Department of Education for excellence. Singer Diana Ross and actress Lily Tomlin are among its graduates.
The school's successes, though, are often discarded because of the city it calls home, again opening doors to the detractors.
But within the halls of Cass Tech, there's nothing but pride, echoed in a chant that was repeated up and down the route of the downtown championship parade:
Richardson knows what people think of Detroit. He assumes, though, that the many who speak ill of the city have never set foot within its limits or have never attempted to understand the struggles of those who live there.
"A lot of people get Detroit mixed up," says Richardson, who has committed to play football at Michigan. "But to be part of Detroit, to be from Detroit, it's a blessing."
The blessing of being from Detroit was part of what made Cass Tech's state championship so meaningful.
The Technicians' 36-point victory was the most lopsided loss for Catholic Central in 40 years. Catholic Central boasts 11 state football championships since 1979 and entered the game with only one loss. Cass Tech, meanwhile, snuck into the playoffs with a 6-3 record.
For Wilcher, the opportunity was emblematic of everything his program stood for.
"They don't have nothing to show -- all they have to do is prove all the time," Wilcher says. "But when they keep proving, keep showing people up, that’s what’s really important."
It's an attitude Wilcher's players have come to embrace -- not only on the field, but in life.
Darryl Goldsmith plays defensive tackle and offensive guard for Cass Tech. He has started on the varsity since he was a freshman. He was born and raised in Detroit, a city where everyday successes are often overshadowed by the negatives that seemingly abound in the city's image.
At times, Goldsmith says the "Us Against The World" mentality Cass Tech had during its championship season is requirement for making it in Detroit. But like Richardson, Goldsmith finds the positives.
"Detroit is actually a great city," Goldsmith says. "Most of what you hear on the news, that's just what they want you to see. They don't talk about the good things."
The letter Wilcher received was merciless. The author wrote that he attended the championship game and was left to think "how many of your players would be academically eligible if they attended a real school rather than a DPS holding tank."
Detroit Public School officials dismissed the hate mail as "trash." Detroit Catholic Central athletic director Aaron Babicz said the letter-writer had no affiliation with the school and he told the Detroit News many players were distraught by the letter.
"This is devastating to our kids," Babicz told The News. "The kids are crushed. People know it didn't come from our community and I'm disgusted by the contents of the letter."
But for Greg Harden, an associate athletic director at the University of Michigan and native Detroiter, any attention to the letter takes away from Cass Tech's state title run.
"The unfortunate piece is how it tries to steal the thunder of what has been accomplished," Harden says. "It's a real disservice to that school, to that coaching staff, to those kids to have to focus on why would someone be that insensitive, that outraged."
Destroying such feelings, Harden says, is a difficult task.
"It's going to be a constant struggle and a constant battle because people want it to be easy and simple," Harden says. "It's not that simple, and it's complicated."
Harden says the letter feeds into stereotypes that Wilcher's players have been working to destroy their entire lives.
But Wilcher's players used the letter as a rallying cry -- not for another game, but for post-graduation.
"Other schools, other teams, they probably would have taken that letter the wrong way," Richardson says. "But we looked at that letter and we said, 'That letter means that we really played good. That means that we went out there and really fought hard.'
"So for someone to write a letter like that really makes me proud. That makes me feel like I played my heart out."
That takes us back to Detroit.
The championship parade concluded with a rally at The Spirit of Detroit, a statue where the city’s past title celebrations have concluded.
As school officials and coaches spoke at the rally, they talked of pride and the accomplishments achieved by a school district many perceive to be in trouble.
Coaches spoke of the achievement of bringing a championship back to Detroit, pledging to return again next year.
Throughout the parade, well-wishers followed the procession, shaking green and white pom-poms, snapping pictures with digital cameras and cell phones. Traffic cops waved and took photos while business owners and coffee house workers pressed against the windows of their shops to watch as the parade passed.
In the center of it all were Wilcher and his players, who passed through a sea of students at the end of the parade route, hoisting the championship trophy.
Wilcher called the day a joyous occasion for the city of Detroit.
While the front of his players' jerseys had "Cass Tech" printed across the front of them, Richardson and his teammates were aware that they are Detroiters at heart, succeeding in a city others expect to fail.
"It's a blessing and it's a big thing for us to be able to bring this back to the city of Detroit," Richardson says. "Throughout this whole season, we went through a lot of stuff, so for us to come out on top and for us to play for the city of Detroit is a big thing.
"Today is really about the city and to celebrate to show that this whole season was pretty much for them."
Etched on the wall behind the Spirit of Detroit statue are 17 words taken from scripture:
For Cass Tech's players, there is now a freedom they can take with them their entire lives.
Jeff Arnold can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jeff_arnold24.
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