Of the 23 high school students stuffed into a room of concrete walls and no windows on a warm July afternoon, Jaylin Bynum was among those unsure why they were there.
Bynum, a returning quarterback for Minneapolis South, is a naturally athletic 16-year-old who would rather spend his time on a field or court, or playing the newest version of the NFL2K video game.
Those distractions are why South coach Lenny Sedlock all but required the junior to attend this six-week leadership course, intended to help the school’s student-athletes become better people and leaders.
Bynum listened with interest as some of his peers responded to basketball coach Joe Hyser who asked: “What things are under your control?”
“You can control whether you go to school and whether you do drugs,” a reply was shouted from the back of the room.
Bynum chimed in, “Grades.”
Hyser added, “And being on time,” directing his words at the quarterback.
Bynum agreed. But academics and punctuality have never been his strong suits.
In Sedlock’s new vision of South football, that would have to change for Bynum.
The leadership initiative, created by South athletic director Mark Sanders, was intended for the likes of Bynum. It was a chance to push kids with potential into a finished product.
Bynum’s athletic potential shown as strength and conditioning coach Tim Pearson pushed him to his physical limits. At 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, he excelled at every drill.
But none of it mattered if his grades couldn’t keep up with his speed.
Less than three weeks before the season opener, Bynum didn’t know if he’d be suiting up.
He only had two of the three summer school credits he needed to become eligible. Desperate to find a way onto the field, he schemed ways to bump up his insufficient grade-point average. Maybe his drawing teacher would give him a chance to do extra credit, he hoped.
Then he remembered why it was so low in the first place: He didn’t put in the effort. At least he had learned something in the process, Bynum thought: There’s a time to play and a time to be serious.
Now was a time to be serious. After helping senior Bo Schwanke lead a captains’ practice, Bynum reflected on all those he was letting down. They didn’t know he was teetering on being ineligible.
“I think about it a lot,” he said. “I don’t want to tell them and have them be upset. They are looking up to me. That puts more pressure on me.”
Four days later, on the first day of practice, stress got the best of Bynum. He wandered the field, sat alone during breaks and even threw up.
After practice Bynum waited to ask Sedlock if he’d be able to play. Feeling hopeless and fearing the answer would be no.
Then Sanders told him it was doable.
“I’m happy he told me there’s hope,” Bynum said. “I just felt disappointed. Like I was letting a lot of people down. But at the same time, I feel like a lot of people don’t care. … cause it’s South. In the halls you hear people say the football team sucks. And they’re not going to the games.”
Just say no
Most days, Bynum’s decision to attend practice is met with opposition from his friends. Those forces reflect a negative vibe that he finds difficult to handle.
“Say if I went to a suburban school,” Bynum said. “And there were people that actually wanted you to play football. My teammates and friends and stuff, they wouldn’t want me to stray off and do bad things. … I’ll see [distractions] during school and they’ll ask me if I’m trying to hang out, and I’ll tell them I have practice. They’ll ask me, well, can’t you just skip a day or something?”
It’s becoming easy for Bynum to say no. But that wasn’t always the case.
“I understand a lot of kids go through that,” said his father, Jimmy, in reference to his son’s battle with making the right choices. “I just see a little turnaround. It’s still early, but we’re going to stay on him … and make sure he continues to do the right things.”
Sitting in the bleachers for the South’s home opener, Bynum’s father celebrated his son’s effort.
“We just got to keep watching him and just kind of listen to him,” Jimmy added. “As a parent, it’s not juist do, do do. We listen and learn from him too. So the whole family learned from this.”
As South’s season evolved, so did Bynum’s role on the team, a change that didn’t come easily for him.
Lining up at a defensive end this season, Bynum was now pursuing and no longer being pursued. On offense, he moved from quarterback to tight end.
Bynum wondered why.
“It’s always better to tell someone you’re the quarterback,” he lamented. “But I like defense.”
With sophomore quarterback Anthony Hockett emerging, Sedlock and his staff had to find a new home for Bynum. As he learned throughout an uncertain and difficult summer, it was time to be serious and thankful no matter what position he played. At least he was still playing.
“That was a big step for Jaylin. He’s never really talked to me like that,” said Sedlock, praising his junior’s maturity.
Bynum senses a change, too.
“I made some mistakes,” he said. “But now I’m trying to do what’s right.”
Jason Gonzalez • 612-673-673-4494 Twitter: @JGonStrib