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Keys provides avenue to success

Written by Ernest Hooper, St. Petersburg Times

When a limousine cruises through a housing project, it usually represents and ending. The sight of a long black car with multiple doors is most often associated with funeral processions.

But for James Creal and Nathan Williams, the limousine represented a beginning, a promising new start. Creal and Williams are two Tampa football players who earned scholarships with the help of All Sports Community Service. Their reward for good grades and a determination to improve was not only a scholarship, but a limo ride that took them to Tampa International. In addition, their air travel was provided gratis by Discount Travel, Uniglobe Travel and U.S. Air.

"It sent a message to the kids that they can get out with style," said Jerry Bell, one of the many people who has worked with All Sport director Tyrone Keys. "It shows that people care... the whole purpose was to show the kids and everybody around there that somebody cares."

Keys cares more than most. A former defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Bucs, the 33-year old Mississippi State graduate has always desired to help others. I third grade, a teacher wouldn't let him be a safety patrol, so he borrowed a patrol belt and spent the whole year manning a post voluntarily.

Albert Perry sought the giving nature of Keys last April. Perry was a former star running back at Leto High who earned a scholarship to Texas Southern in 1992, but never found the money to make the trip.

"I just assumed he had gone to Texas Southern," Keys said. "I saw him and he said 'help me get out of this situation. If I stay here, something's going to happen to me.'"

Keys went to work, but a week later Perry was shot to death a a block party in the Ponce De Leon complex. The dispute between Perry and his murderer centered around Perry shooting a water gun at a car.

"That was when I went to (Tampa Housing Authority's) James Harrell and told him I wanted to help," Keys said. "I didn't want to let Albert Perry die in vain."

Keys' work with the Public Housing Authority has been unique because every story hasn't ended with the student heading off to college. Some are guided to trade school and others are pointed in the direction of the military. Keys sets up kids to succeed by finding the best possilities, and the emphasis is on education.

"My main thing is to get them in school," Keys said, "to get them in a new environment and get them away from their old environment."

Of course, Keys' work goes beyond just those in public housing. He has been the key for many area athletes, opening opportunities for everlooked athletes. Although the players went unnoticed, it wasn't because they didn't deserve recognition. Many were among the country's best.

Gaither's T.J. Lewis and JoJo DePagter were one of the top guard tandems in the county, but both would have had trouble getting to Queens College in Charlotte, N.C., if it weren't for Keys. Tampa Catholic defensive lineman Colby Mathews is at Minnesota now because of Keys' help, and former Gaither basketball player Monica Gipson, who will play at Tennessee State, calls Keys "amazing."

Keys believes he's helped more than 60 students in the last year.

"No one has been there to push these kids along," Bell said. "It's amazing how grateful they are when you treat them a little special."

But All Sports is more than just a recruiting service. Keys asks the athletes he assists to give back to the community through activities. Players may speak to a group of kids at the Boys Club, serve meals at Metropolitan Ministries or do volunteer work at the Police Athletic League. Keys wants the students "Eager to learn, learning to earn, earning to give, giving to love."

"The days of us getting kids in school just to be athletes are over," Keys said. "We want to help responsible people with character who will bring an intangible to the school."

The volunteer work is all Keys asks of students. he doesn't charge the students, but most families offer some kind of donation. Keys has sought corporate help and said Jerry Ulm Dodge, Reeves Import Motorcars and St. Joseph's Hospital have been extremely helpful.

Individuals such as Carin McClellan and Gilda Hobbie also have been of great assistance, but Keys is looking for more help - corporate and individual. He can be reached at 969-1699.

The kid who just wanted to help students cross the street is now a man helping students cross into the land of opportunity. And he doesn't want to tell anyone no.