A 7-on-7 team, a training program - and a plan to change the city
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In the last two years, “Evolve” has become part of the lexicon in western Pennsylvania football recruiting.
With some of the area’s top skill-position prospects playing for the program’s seven-on-seven team, Evolve is a name to know, an entity to be aware of and a group whose activities are worth monitoring, purely from the angle of recruiting interest.
But there’s more to Evolve than non-pads football, fancy visors and national recognition at events like the Cam Newton Foundation 7 v 7 Championship Tournament. Because before there was Evolve, there was Shadow Student Athletes. And before Shadow, there was 2/10th Speed and Agility.
And before 2/10th, before all of it, there were two guys from the city.
‘I MADE HIM GO SIT UP ON THE BOULEVARD’
By the early 2000’s, Ron Wabby had coached long enough to know a good athlete when he saw one. And when he saw DeVon Madden, he knew he didn’t have a good athlete.
“He was a great athlete,” Wabby says from Florida, where he lives now after coaching Brashear for 26 years. As a senior in 2003, Madden helped Wabby nearly win his sixth City League championship, returning a fumble for a touchdown in the semifinals to get the Bulls to the title game against Perry (a game Brashear lost; Wabby would get No. 6 a few years later).
But Wabby had also coached long enough to know when athletes need a little extra motivation to stay on the right path. And for as great an athlete as Madden was, he sometimes fell into that category, too.
“He was a little wild,” Wabby says. “One time he got into a big argument with the defensive coordinator, so I made him sit out a game. I made him go sit up on the Boulevard during the game, made him go talk to some of my people up there.”
Madden’s issues with authority didn’t start when he disagreed with a Brashear assistant coach. In fact, those issues were the reason he ended up at Brashear in the first place. A native of Beltzhoover, Madden spent ninth grade at Oliver High School in the North Side. And then…
“I got kicked out,” Madden says, and he doesn’t shy away from the two sides of who he was in middle school and high school.
“I was always the star athlete from little leagues, always winning MVP’s and track championships…I was the MVP in volleyball and the rookie of the year in soccer. Like, anything athletics and sports-wise, I was always really dominant.
“But I came from a single-parent household with my mom raising seven kids by herself, and I really didn’t have too much discipline when it came to men addressing me. So anytime a man would redirect me in coaching or in school, I would flip out because it was foreign to me. I always looked at it as, you know, someone trying to challenge me, so I thought I had to stand up and fight for myself.”
So Madden fought. He was suspended “10 times in one academic school year,” he says, and he got arrested during his senior year, at which point the off-field behavior offset the athletic ability that had earned him varsity letters in football, basketball and wrestling. Madden had been nominated to play in the 2004 Big 33 Football Classic but was rejected due to conduct. He also “gave up academically,” in his words, and graduated with a 1.6 GPA.
The academic, legal and behavioral issues overshadowed his physical ability and the college interest he had been hearing faded. Madden says Pitt, West Virginia, Youngstown State, Morehead State and other FCS programs were looking at him, but by the end of his senior year, those options were gone.
The only option remaining was Lackawanna College. But when he arrived at the junior college in Scranton, he was told there wasn’t enough room in the dorms, so he headed back to Pittsburgh and enrolled at the Community College of Allegheny County for two semesters. Eager for another chance, Madden called “literally 30 schools” and the best option he could find - the only option he could find - was at Clarion, where head coach Malen Luke agreed to give him a spot as a walk-on.
During his year at CCAC, though, Madden stayed in shape by working out with a trainer who was just getting his start.
‘IT WAS ALL WORD OF MOUTH’
DeWayne Brown grew up in Beltzhoover and graduated from Carrick High School, and while he attended a couple junior colleges before getting his degree from Thiel College, his path was always leading back to the city.
So, after he graduated from Thiel in “1998 or something like that,” Brown took a job in the Pittsburgh Public Schools working in student affairs.
He also had a love for sports, so he worked his way onto a few local coaching staffs. Ralph Blundo gave him his first coaching gig on the basketball staff at George Junior Republic (an all-boys institution in Grove City for at-risk youth), and later he worked as an assistant coach at Brashear, where he shared the bench with Wabby, who was an assistant hoops coach in addition to being the Bulls’ head football coach.
One summer, Brown found himself at a college football prospect camp where high school players were working out for college coaches in the hopes of getting a scholarship offer. To Brown, the City League players stood out, and not for a good reason.
“I would see City League kids and they didn’t look the part,” Brown says. “Remember how Fat Albert and the gang looked? That’s how City League kids looked. They were athletic but they didn’t look the part at camps.”
Ever the self-starter, in 2004 Brown collected some money he had saved - around $3,000, by his recollection - and bought a few basic items: some sleds, some parachutes and some cones. His first group was “six or eight” players, by his recollection; he charged $10 per session, but he admits he wasn’t a stickler for the cash.
“If they don’t have it, I don’t chase them,” Brown says.
He would add Brashear’s football team to his training sessions, but one of the players in Brown’s first group was Marcellus Garner, a receiver from McKeesport who played at California University of Pennsylvania. Garner felt that he needed additional training beyond what Cal was providing, and he found it with Brown.
At the time, Garner’s father was living in North Carolina with his younger son, Manasseh, who went on to star at Brashear before playing at Wisconsin and later transferring to Pitt. Soon, both Garner brothers were under the tutelage of Brown.
“I was living in North Carolina at the time and my brother told my father, ‘Look Dad, Manessah really needs to hook up with DeWayne,’” says Manasseh Garner, who is currently with the Washington Redskins. “My father was already planning to relocate to Pittsburgh, and that was the first thing my brother told him: that I needed to hook up with DeWayne Brown. That was the first time I really heard about him.”
From the very start, Brown’s training operation was based in the city. His first workouts were held at McKinley Park in Beltzhoover and he later moved a half-mile north to the Warrington Rec Center. Next was Greenway Field in Sheraden, then Cupples Stadium in the South Side, then back to Greenway. In the winters, Brown would bring his crew to Carrick High School, where he had permission to use the gym.
Sometimes the groups would be as big as 50 or 60 players, and coaches at other high schools took notice of the work he was doing with Brashear.
“That’s probably why they were a powerhouse in the city for so long,” former West Virginia and current Cincinnati Bengals defensive lineman Will Clarke says. “I think that’s how my coach got wind of him and brought him over to Allderdice for that year.”
Brashear and Allderdice were soon joined by Seton LaSalle and other schools in taking up Brown’s services. Then parents of midget league players heard what was happening, so a bunch of South Side Sabers who would go on to excel in school and play college football were soon coming to training.
“It was all word-of-mouth,” Brown says. “I didn’t have any commercials or anything. That’s why people think I just popped up, but I’ve been doing this for a long time.”
‘I WAS SO DEVASTATED’
DeVon Madden was part of Brown’s first group with Marcellus Garner and a few others, training while he attended CCAC during the 2004-05 school year. The following fall, he joined Clarion’s roster and played in one game, the season opener, as the Golden Eagles stumbled to a 3-7 record that led to the resignation of head coach Malen Luke.
To replace Luke, Clarion hired Slippery Rock head coach Jay Foster. Madden played in eight games during the 2006 season and recorded nine tackles, but Foster had a rather frank conversation with him in the offseason.
“The coach cut me during spring ball,” Madden says. “We were at the exit interviews and he was like, ‘I don’t care if you were supposed to go to West Virginia, I don’t care how fast you are or if you’re the strongest on the team; it doesn’t mean nothing. You’re a cancer.’ I didn’t know what it meant. He was like, ‘You’re not committed to the team.’ I was like, how? I was the fastest dude on the team, I didn’t miss meetings, I never had an underage, I was always the first there; I was like, what do you mean, committed? He couldn’t articulate it.
“I was so devastated when they kicked me off the team. I had a lot of time to reflect. Now I was a regular student on a college campus. I felt like nobody. I remember, I was like, I need to do something. I started a bible study on campus and I started mentoring dudes on the team; I ended up becoming like a team chaplain.”
Madden had gotten an indication that mentoring might be a path he could follow the previous summer when he returned to Pittsburgh and interned with Brown at his newly-christened 2/10th Speed and Agility Training. As he interacted with high school students whose athletic ability outpaced their social and behavioral development - which sounded more than a little familiar - Madden started to get the sense that he could help.
He had been in their shoes. He was the star athlete who had wasted opportunities, and perhaps his guidance could help a few of the young men to avoid similar outcomes.
Madden graduated from Clarion in December 2008 with a degree in sports management, but before he could start working in the community, he had one lingering obligation to fulfill, one “debt,” he calls it.
“I went straight to military boot camp,” Madden says.
There had been an arrest early in his time at Clarion, but the judge saw Madden’s academic success - he says he was doing well in the classroom - and didn’t want to derail that, so he created some unique terms: Madden could postpone his punishment while he finished school at Clarion, provided his grades stayed at a certain level.
Madden kept his grades up and graduated with honors. When commencement was over, though, he went directly to serve the sentence: eight months in boot camp.
‘I’M GONNA BE ON YOU LIKE A SHADOW’
By the time Madden finished his legal obligations in late 2009, Brown had 2/10th Speed and Agility Training rolling. The word-of-mouth advertising was working, as players throughout the City League and beyond came to him for training.
“I heard that some of the top guys in the city trained with him and I wanted to be part of that,” former Pitt safety and Shady Side Academy standout Reggie Mitchell said last year. “I’ve been training with them ever since.”
Having the players at training gave Brown and his staff a unique kind of access to them - access that Madden recognized when he started working with Brown after his boot camp experience ended. At 2/10th, he found a group of young men, all in one place and working at something they cared about; Brown and Madden and the rest could use their own histories, which were more than a little relatable, to help the youth make better decisions in their lives.
Madden still remembers when the idea for the next step dawned on him.
“As we were training, the first kid I got into it with was similar to me; it was Jaylen Coleman,” Madden says. Coleman was a linebacker at Peabody who would go on to play at Toledo, and he had more than a little in common with Madden.
“Him and Jaylen used to bump heads because they’re the same person,” Brown says. And Coleman sees the comparison, too.
“Me and ‘Von came from the same background,” he says. “When two alpha males meet out, they’re bound to butt heads. He was older but I was supposed to be the big man on campus, so I was being stubborn and didn’t want to listen to nobody. We just butted heads all the time.”
“He had a strong personality and I had a strong personality and we used to argue back and forth,” Madden says. “That was when I was like, man, we need to start a nonprofit that’s able to get into the schools and start mentoring these guys, put a system in place, almost like what you would have in college: study hours, volunteer stuff. Pretty much put a system in place where kids cannot fail how I failed and how I wasn’t prepared academically or socially.”
The more time Madden spent with 2/10th and the more time he spent around the young men who came to train with Brown, the more he saw an opening, a need in the community and in the schools for someone with his experience to make a difference.
Madden called the new program Shadow Student Athletes, and the name had a meaning.
“Jaylen would go to DeWayne and complain, talking about ‘’Von is always on my back,’” Madden says. “So I told him, ‘I’m going to be on you like a shadow.’”
One of the first kids Madden mentored was Manasseh Garner, who graduated from Brashear in 2010. Madden served a lot of roles for Garner and his teammate, Joell Nesbit. He would get into their classrooms, observe them in the hallways, make sure they were taking care of obligations like homework - basically, as he puts it, be “a GA in high school.”
That relationship carried over to college.
“As Shadow started to progress,” Garner says, “it took 2/10th to the student level and really dealt with the personal level. As I went through high school and graduated and was a freshman in college, ‘Von was really transitioning Shadow into a mentoring program and he would make frequent trips to the University of Wisconsin, which was about a 10-hour ride. And he would literally come up just to encourage me and spend the day with me. It was nothing more than that. And even now he still does it, he’ll shoot me a text and say, ‘How ya doing? Keep your head up and stay encouraged.’
“It was just an extra voice, somebody to go to. If you didn’t have a friend or a parent, you knew you had somebody who you could really relate to.”
“Sometimes kids don’t know which side of the fence they want to be on,” Wabby, the former Brashear coach, says. “They can be the gang-banger or be the kid who wants to go to school and do well. That’s where ‘Von is very helpful: a lot of his friends didn’t make it. They’re gone.
“That’s what [Madden and Brown] try to do: lead them. The way out is not through drugs but through going to school. They understand it can go either way and they try to help it go the right way.”
In the last 10 years, seven-on-seven football - no pads and no linemen; just skill players playing pass offense and pass defense - has exploded. Scholastic teams have played the gridiron variation for a long time, but in the latter half of the first decade of this century, all-star seven-on-seven teams with no direct ties to a specific high school have become prominent.
Following the national trend, a few such teams popped up in western Pennsylvania, and in 2012, a few players who trained with 2/10th started talking to Madden and Brown about starting their own seven-on-seven team.
By Madden’s recollection, it came together in January of 2013 with a collection of “30 kids who didn’t make” one of the local seven-on-seven teams.
The modesty of Evolve’s origin didn’t last long, though, and by 2015, the team featured some of the area’s top talent: Damar Hamlin, Therran Coleman, Bricen Garner, Paris Ford, Exree Loe, Kenny Robinson, Tim Jackson, James Jackson and more Division I prospects all played for Evolve.
With that many top recruits on the team and the fact that many of the team’s trips to tournaments coincided with visits to Division I colleges, questions naturally arose about the influence of Madden and Brown on those players’ college choices.
Madden, who is active on social media, heard quite a bit of criticism - or, at the very least, skepticism - about his role in the recruiting process.
“They say we influence kids on where to go to school; if you ask any kid, they’ll tell you, I never influenced any kid to any school,” Madden says. “I said one thing: if Pitt’s your school, can you see yourself at Pitt if football didn’t exist? If there was no football, can you go to Penn State? Miles (Sanders) has been coming to us since eighth grade, and I asked him that and he said, ‘I can see myself on Penn State’s campus if there was no football.’ That was one of the reasons he chose Penn State.
“That’s the biggest advice I give them. If you’re a top recruit, everybody’s going to say you’re going to start, everybody’s going to tell you what you want; that’s what their job is. But if football didn’t exist, can you go to that school? Like Wisconsin; Wisconsin was high on (former Brashear standout and current Pitt redshirt freshman) Therran (Coleman)’s list, and the first time he went up there, I went with him and I asked him, ‘Can you see yourself here if football didn’t exist?’ He said no. So that’s what I say to them. That way, regardless of how football goes, they’ll still be happy and not miserable and not drop out.”
Madden thinks that those who see Evolve as merely an opportunity for exposure are missing the bigger goals he has for the program. According to him, Evolve is the smallest program under the Shadow Student Athletes umbrella, but it still serves the larger Shadow mission - and uses the popularity of the seven-on-seven team to further that mission.
After the team with Hamlin, Coleman and the rest helped make Evolve something of a brand name locally, more and more young football players wanted to join the team. And that gave Madden an opening.
“We’ll see a bunch of kids at training that are real hyper, athletic but socially not ready to be in a classroom,” Madden says. “So, ‘Hey, come to 2/10ths, be around some top recruits, come hang out, work out, burn some steam off there,’ so then Monday, when they come back to school, I say, ‘If you want to come into the program and join the seven-on-seven team, I need you to come to class on time.’
“So it’s easy for me to get kids to go to class because the carrot that I’m holding is appealing to them.”
WAYNE AND VON
While Evolve and 2/10th have drawn players from across western Pennsylvania, the hearts of the programs, like the hearts of the two guys in charge, are in the city.
For Madden, that means direct involvement in the school system. One of Shadow’s programs is the AIM Initiative, a mentoring program that puts Shadow’s six staff members in five K-8 schools in the North Side, the Hill District and Lawrenceville, plus Brashear High School, as mentors and more.
Madden wants his staff helping students but also helping the teachers and counselors - “anyone who interacts with the kids.” In his experience with the Pittsburgh Public Schools, young teachers often get sent to schools where students come from difficult situations and the teachers aren’t prepared to handle it. So Madden’s staff intervenes in what he calls “training wheels” for teachers.
“They’re teaching 30 kids in the classroom, half of the class may have ADHD or is diagnosed with some sort of disorder - and some of it is misdiagnosed - and then you have a 23 or 24-year old teacher, fresh out of school, that comes from a different background and is just not ready.
“So my service provides character coaches to the school system to be almost like a plug; if there’s a hole in your tire, we’ll plug the tire until you’re able to grow into your own niche and your own skill set and be comfortable. Then we move on, classroom-to-classroom, school-to-school, but some schools I’ve been at for four years.”
The Shadow website showcases quite a list of accomplishments for Madden, from former Director of Development/Personnel of Voices Against Violence and former Board Member of the Beltzhoover Neighborhood Council to serving as a facilitator and “community expert” for organizations like the Pittsburgh Public Schools Equity Office, the Duquesne University Educational Leadership Symposium and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. He also received a master's certification in Strategies in Conflict Management from the Mendoza College of Business at Notre Dame.
Working with funding from private donations (some of which come from current NFL players who trained and still train with 2/10th) as well as grants from the Heinz Endowment, the Birmingham Foundation and others, Madden operates Shadow with the same drive he found in his darkest days at Clarion - a drive that turned into action when he linked up with Brown.
“I asked God, give me something that I can find purpose in,” he says of that time. “And it was always helping people. When it clicked, I was around DeWayne. He taught me how to be sociable, likeable and more calm, stuff like that. That’s what brought everything together.
“There wouldn’t be Shadow if there wasn’t 2/10th.”
And Brown is still out grinding away at training. He has upgraded facilities - he’s now holding his training sessions at the indoor facility at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex where Pitt and the Steelers practice - but the program still has the same ethos. It’s still Brown working out of a pickup truck (everyone from Clarke to Garner to Madden to Brown mentions the truck), dragging his sleds and parachutes and cones into the building for that day’s collection of willing participants.
“He’ll be my trainer for life,” Manasseh Garner says. “Even now, I’m starting to realize that his training, it’s so helpful with football, man. The natural exercises, body weight exercises, it’s a lot off your body but you’re getting explosive workouts out of it. After 10 years, I still find it hard to finish a workout with DeWayne.”
“You have to be in shape to go to his workouts,” says Clarke, the Bengals defensive lineman. “You can’t come in there out of shape; he will get you in shape real quick. It’s not your typical strength and speed training; not your typical weight training. It’s calisthenics-based, things that push you in different movements, put your body in different position to do exercises that you’re not used to doing.”
“A lot of those movements and stuff, I make it up,” Brown says. “I see something, I remember it and I add my way to it.”
Some days, Brown’s workouts feature participants who would draw autograph-seekers, like former Pitt defensive tackle and current NFL star Aaron Donald, who still comes back to western Pennsylvania from Los Angeles to train with Brown. Or like the video Brown posted on Twitter recently showing a workout featuring Clarke, Tyrique Jarrett, Dontez Ford, Ejuan Price and Demetrious Cox - all currently on NFL rosters.
And some days, it’s a collection of City League middle-schoolers, a bunch of kids trying to get a little faster, a little more explosive, a little more like Miles Sanders or Paris Ford or Aaron Donald or any of the other notable players who have come through Brown’s training.
Along the way, as they’re trying to get their 40 times down and increase their broad jumps and make the Evolve squad, those young players also might start growing in other areas. They might start finding some guidance and encouragement that they didn’t even realize they needed.
“It was like a second home,” Jaylen Coleman says. “You’ve got practice and everything in your life that you have to stress about, and then you go to D-Brown and ‘Von, and it was like a home away from home. All of your problems went away.
“The more I got older, the more I realized what ‘Von was trying to tell me. He helped me control my temper. He taught me how to have an on and off switch with it.”
“’Wayne is like the big brother, but ‘Von is like the big brother that’s closer in age,” Clarke says. “He would tell us things from his experience and help out. From what I’ve known and been a part of with ‘Von, he does a great job of dedicating 100% - 110% - of his time to make sure that kids are doing what they need to do in the classroom and holding them accountable, just as accountable in the classroom as they are on the field.”
Therran Coleman has been training with Brown since he was nine years old and has been in the Shadow program since middle school.
“[Madden] kind of took me under his wing; he made sure I stayed on top of my schoolwork,” Coleman said last summer prior to his freshman year at Pitt. “I think, without them, I wouldn’t have had any scholarships.”