Land of 10 has embarked on a series of Next Generation articles as Michigan writer Rachel Lenzi travels the country to meet the incoming Class of 2018 freshmen. This week, we feature 4-star QB Joe Milton.
ORLANDO, Fla. — Joe Milton was ready to leave his safe haven.
He was ready to pack his bags, put away his football equipment and return to his home in Pahokee, Fla. He was in the ninth grade and had just completed his first spring football practice at Olympia High School.
“This team’s not good,” Milton told himself, as he observed his teammates. “I can’t be up here. They’re not going to go anywhere.”
He immediately went to his coach, Kyle Hayes, and told him he was moving back to South Florida. Then he walked off the field.
Hayes went to Milton’s house later that night and sat him down with his mother, Deshea Bouie. Milton apologized to his coach, then looked at his mother.
“Why, Joe?” she asked, repeatedly. “Why?”
Those words cut Milton to the core. Then Bouie gave her son advice.
“Joe, if you just stay up here and go with it, you will be okay,” Bouie said.
Milton could have returned to his hometown of Pahokee, but he stayed in Orlando ― roughly 150 miles away ― for his mother and for his future. He found a support system at Olympia that helped groom him into a Division I football prospect for Michigan, and one that brought out his faith and humility.
“I’ve seen a lot of people fall in my life,” Milton said. “I’ve seen a lot of people do bad things. Having a support system at Olympia, it makes me feel like I can go a long way. It means a lot to me, because I know I’m not alone.”
Bouie is a woman who wears her heart on her sleeve, though she isn’t a woman of many words. Yet her advice — maybe even a veiled demand — echoed to her son, who didn’t want to disappoint the woman who had made a huge sacrifice for him.
“I told him, ‘You’re going to stay here,’ ” Bouie said. “ ‘You’re going to stay focused. And you’re going to do what you’ve got to do.’ That’s exactly what he did.
“That’s important to me, to see him fulfill that commitment, because I never had a father in my life. My mom raised me. Me raising a boy? I had to teach him to fulfill that commitment.”
Out of the ‘Muck’
Bouie made the decision a little more than three years ago to take her children out of the “Muck.” Where Orlando is home of the Magic Kingdom in central Florida, Pahokee is part of Muck City on the south shore of Lake Okeechobee.
In the muck all we did was compete because we didn’t have everything growing up so you got to work for everything 💯🏈〽️🙏🏾
— Joe milton #7 (@Qbjayy7) December 5, 2017
The subject of Bryan Mealer’s 2012 book Muck City, the Pahokee-Belle Glade region is about 45 miles west of West Palm Beach. It was once known for its fertile, near-black soil that produced sugar cane and vegetables. It’s now an area rife with poverty, unemployment and crime.
It’s also known for producing NFL and college football players. For Milton, the Muck was home until he was 14.
“We did this to better ourselves,” said Bouie, who works multiple jobs to support five children. “It’s better, it’s bigger and there’s more opportunities here. And Joe came here, and he stayed humble.”
Milton knew he had to succeed in Olympia’s environment. His first week at his new high school, he formulated a plan. He looked at his schedule and made a point to visit every teacher. He told each teacher the same thing.
“My name is Joe,” Milton recited, three years later, in the guidance office at Olympia. “Nice to meet you. I have a future. I want to do this in life. But for me to do this, I have to pass your class. What do I have to do to get here?”
Milton knew he had to compete, both in the classroom and on the football field. He had a dream to play college football. He didn’t know where, but he knew he needed to succeed in school to achieve his dream.
“My plan? I knew I was going to play football. I thought I’d get offers from colleges in my senior year,” he said. “But I didn’t know how good I’d be, not this good. But I kept my faith in God. I prayed. I kept my mom happy. And I kept my brothers and sisters happy, too. I had to.”
As Milton improved as a football player, Hayes needed Milton to understand something: He was the face of the Olympia High School program. He had to learn the fickle nature of being a quarterback.
“Joe had to make sure that he understands, ‘You’re not a fly-by-night dude,’ ” Hayes said. “ ‘You’re the captain of the ship. You’re the pilot of the plane. If it goes great, you’ll be praised. If it goes bad, they’ll give you hell. ‘ ”
That conversation was a far cry from the one Hayes had with Milton when the quarterback was a ninth-grader ready to leave for Pahokee.
“The pressure of people in Pahokee, calling, telling you to come back, and you come up here with an uncertainty, and you’re new to the city and the team, you’ve got pressure,” Hayes said. “A 14-year-old has to make a decision.
“I get it. But I talked with him. I let him know, if he sticks with it here and he does what he’s supposed to do, the sky’s the limit. I told him, ‘You’ll be successful wherever you go. But here’s the deal. I want you to have the values to stay successful, wherever you go.’ That’s the difference.”
Some days, Hayes had to coach Milton a little harder than other players. Some days, he had to call Milton and make sure he was awake and getting ready for practice.
“Now, this season, there were some days Joe was calling me to wake me up,” Hayes said, laughing.
Nearly 30 scholarship offers rolled in, but Michigan passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton called Milton last February. Hamilton, Milton said, didn’t talk to him about how athletic he was, or the numbers he posted as a junior at Olympia.
“He told me, and I still remember it to this day,” Milton said. “Pep said to me, ‘Joe, we’re not going to sit here and tell you that you’re the guy we want. Because you’re the guy that we want, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to do your part. By getting good grades, getting your grades up. Get your grades up and you’ll be outstanding, because nobody can stop you unless you’re stopping yourself.’ ”
Milton chose Michigan for the chance to work with Hamilton and Michigan coach and former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh.
“They know the game,” Milton said. “They understand it very well. By them loading that into me, I think I’ll be a great quarterback.”
Every day, Milton said, Hamilton called and reminded him, “Do your work.”
Milton programmed his own reminders into his phone, for more motivation. Every day, between 2:12 and 8:30 p.m., he receives three pop-up messages:
Joe, you can do this. Trust in the Lord. Know that God will do everything. Keep smiling.
Don’t watch the clock. Do what it does. Keep going.
Do your homework. Do your essay for college.
“Joe is such a self-sufficient kid,” Hayes said. “He’s not a needy person. But I also tell him, ‘Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s OK to say that.’ ”
Poised for success
Milton was one of five players who signed national letters of intent Dec. 20 at Olympia. Bouie sat in the front row of the cafeteria, decked out in a Michigan baseball cap, a black block-M long-sleeved shirt and blue jeans. Her brunette locks spilled out of the cap, and tears rolled down her cheeks as Joe addressed more than 250 students, teachers and parents.
Milton graduated in December and left the sunny confines at Olympia for Ann Arbor. When he arrived on campus Dec. 31, the temperature hovered in the single digits. Now, he enters a cauldron of sorts at Michigan as one of three incoming quarterbacks. Milton gave Michigan his word and followed through on his commitment.
The Muck made him. Olympia prepared him.
“There was so much support here, and sometimes you never know who has your back,” Milton said of his experience at Olympia. “But the people here, they have your back 100 percent. Once you quit, there’s somebody behind you to keep pushing you. I almost quit one time, and the whole guidance team called me down and had a big meeting. I thought, ‘Dang, I didn’t know I had this!’ ”
Milton delivered a message for the teachers who helped him succeed.
“Thank you all, and I love you all,” Milton said.
Most importantly, he profusely thanked his mother, who wouldn’t let him quit.
“She was the best mother that she can be,” Milton said.
RELATED: Joe Milton makes it official, signs with Michigan