If not for sports, Tim Lelito isn’t sure he would have finished high school.
Now that he’s entering his fifth season in the National Football League, Lelito is doing what he can to make sure kids in St. Clair County don’t have to worry about that.
The Lelito Legacy Foundation has teamed with the Community Foundation of St. Clair County to grant $9,000 for county schools to cover athletic participation fees for students in need.
“I used sports as a vehicle for where I am now – to get to college and get through high school,” the 2007 St. Clair High School graduate said. “If I didn’t have sports, I don’t think I would have graduated high school at all. School wasn’t a priority; the horses that my grandparents raised were the priority, because that was our livelihood.
“Making it to college and being the first one in my family to graduate with a degree, sports was that vehicle for me to get that degree, and that really hit home with me.”
Five St. Clair County community partners were able to raise $4,500, and Lelito’s foundation matched. The funds will be able to cover participation fees for 116 students at St. Clair County high schools and middle schools during the 2017-18 school year.
The Port Huron Schools Endowment Fund, East China School District Athletic Boosters and PTOs, the Community Foundation of St. Clair County’s Youth Advisory Council and its Marysville Community Fund, and the Capac Adolescents Preventing Abuse and Crime (CAPAC) Fund were the five partners.
“It’s exciting to see someone who is not only successful and has come back to help his hometown, but he’s so humble about it,” Community Foundation Vice President Jackie Hanton said. “When we were in our meetings, it’s not about Tim. It’s that he has this vision to help kids who are like him.”
Lelito was a mauling all-state offensive lineman at St. Clair, paving the way for the team’s option attack. He was also an all-state thrower on the Saints’ track & field team.
Playing sports required a participation fee, something Lelito’s grandparents handled, even if they struggled to do so.
“When I was younger, my grandparents raised racehorses, and money was tight for a while,” Lelito said. “My grandparents put my brother and I in sports, and we always played sports. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I was older. They were pinching pennies together and taking care of us before taking care of their needs.”
Lelito earned a scholarship to Grand Valley State University, where – after redshirting as a freshman and being forced to take a medical redshirt his second year – he started 45 straight games and was named Offensive Lineman of the Year by the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in 2012.
He was signed by the New Orleans Saints as an undrafted free agent in 2013, and worked his way into the rotation almost immediately, seeing action in 63 games during his four years in New Orleans and starting 24 games, including 13 in 2015.
This past offseason, Lelito signed a free-agent deal with the Tennessee Titans.
Throughout his NFL career, Lelito has given back, both to his hometown and his professional town. He has conducted free football camps for St. Clair County kids for the past few years.
“He’s just a young man that I’ve continued to be impressed with how grounded he’s remained,” Bill Nesbitt, Lelito’s football coach at St. Clair, said. “He understands the big picture. His success is not just in playing at that level, but in helping others. That’s his great success.”
Funds for the participation fees will be given to the school districts in St. Clair County, and the schools will be tasked with selecting students most in need. In future years, Lelito hopes to help schools purchase equipment for kids in need, and eventually he wants his foundation to reach more than just athletes.
“My foundation isn’t just for kids in sports, it’s for underprivileged youth,” Lelito said. “I think moving forward, in the next five years, I want to be able to take care of a lot of kids in a very broad spectrum – in sports and arts and other extracurricular activities.”
That will take funding, but Lelito said he has found generous donors in St. Clair County.
“That’s why I bought a house here,” he said. “I love it here. I love the people; they’ll give you the shirt off their back. That’s why I wanted to put roots down here.”
With his efforts, Lelito is doing all he can to make it an even better place to call home. Nesbitt believes the funds could be the difference in playing sports as opposed to sitting out for some students, which he hopes will have a lasting effect.
“I think it definitely can have a positive impact that way,” Nesbitt said. “Hopefully, in a larger, greater, grander sense, these kids who are participants could one day give back themselves. If they are able to go on and have some success, maybe they could remember that somebody had helped them out and do the same.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Tennessee Titans offensive lineman Tim Lelito watches an athlete work out during a camp he conducts in the St. Clair area. (Middle) Lelito during his high school career at St. Clair. (Below) Lelito, middle, has worked this offseason to help pay participation fees for athletes in need of financial assistance. (Top and below photos courtesy of the Port Huron Times Herald.)
LAWRENCE — If redshirting was a thing in high school, at least two coaches at Lawrence would stick that label on senior John Schuman.
“We don’t want to lose this kid ever,” said Derek Gribler, the Tigers’ first-year varsity football and baseball coach.
“If we could put a red shirt on this kid every year, we would.”
Athletic director John Guillean, who also coaches varsity basketball, agreed.
“He is what we strive to have all our student-athletes achieve: high GPAs, multi-sport athletes, good, overall well-rounded human beings,” Guillean said.
Schuman has participated in five of the seven boys sports Lawrence sponsors.
As a freshman and sophomore, Schuman played football, wrestled, ran track and played baseball.
He had wrestled since he was 4, and went from the 119-pound weight class as a freshman to 145 the following year. That sophomore season he qualified for his Individual Regional. But as a junior, he traded wrestling for basketball.
“My older brother wrestled at Lawrence, so I would come to practices,” he said. “I quit for a couple years (in middle school) because I liked basketball, too. It was hard to do both. Obviously, in high school, I still struggled with choosing,” he added, laughing.
Guillean is thrilled Schuman made the switch.
“He’s 6-(foot-)4, he’s super athletic, defensively he’s a hawk, offensively he can put the ball in the bucket. But really, aside from his skills, just that positive attitude and that positive outlook, not just in a game, but in life in general, is invaluable,” the coach said.
Last season, Schuman earned honorable mention all-league honors in the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference, averaging 9.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
Lawrence left the BCS for the Southwest 10 Conference this year, joining Bangor, Bloomingdale, Hartford, Decatur, Comstock, Marcellus, Mendon, Centreville, White Pigeon and Cassopolis. Schuman and senior Tim Coombs will co-captain the Tigers, with Guillean rotating in a third captain.
At a school of fewer than 200 students, Schuman will help lead a varsity team with just nine – joined by seniors Andy Bowen and Gabe Gonzalez, juniors Christian Smith, Noel Saldana, Ben McCaw and Zander Payment, and sophomore Jose Hernandez, who will see time with the junior varsity as well using the fifth-quarter rule.
“I attribute a lot of (last year’s successful transition) to my coach, helping me get ready because it wasn’t so pretty,” the senior said. “But we got into it, got going, and my teammates helped me out a lot.”
Gribler is one coach already looking ahead to spring sports after seeing what Schuman did during football season.
In spite of missing 2½ games with an injury, the wide receiver caught 50 receptions for 870 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“I just like the ability to run free, get to hit people, let out some anger,” Schuman laughed.
Gribler said the senior is “an insane athlete.
“On top of his athletic ability, how smart he is in the classroom (3.88 GPA), he helped mold the culture we wanted this year for football. He got our underclassmen the way we wanted them. He was a big asset in many ways.”
Schuman earned all-conference honors for his on-field performance in football as well.
“I would say that my main sport is football,” the senior said. “That’s the one I like the most, spend the most time on.”
In the spring, Schuman competed in both track and baseball, earning all-conference honors in both.
“Doing both is tough,” he said. “I have to say my coaches make it a lot easier for me. They help me a lot and give me the ability to do both, so I really appreciate that.
“Throughout the week you’re traveling every day, it seems like. Baseball twice a week and track, but it’s worth it.”
Schuman’s commitment is so strong that he made a special effort not to let his teammates down last spring.
“He qualified for state in the long jump and did his jumps up in Grand Rapids, then he drove all the way to Kalamazoo to play in the District baseball game,” Guillean said. “That speaks volumes about who this kid is. He did his jumps at 9 a.m. (but did not advance) and made it back to Kalamazoo for a 12:15 game.”
Big shoes to fill
As the youngest of four children of Mark and Gretchen Schuman, the senior was following a family tradition in sports.
Oldest brother Matthew played football, basketball and baseball as well as competed in pole vault and wrestling.
Middle bother Christopher competed in football, wrestling and baseball.
Sister Stephanie played basketball, volleyball and softball.
“I like to say they blazed a pretty good trail for me at this high school,” Schuman said.
As for feeling pressure to live up to his siblings, “I used to when I was younger, but now I feel like I’ve made my own way and done enough things to be proud of that I’m happy with it.”
His own way led him to achieve something none of the others did.
He was named the Tigers’ Male Athlete of the Year, just the third junior to earn the boys honor over the last 25 years.
“I was very honored to win that as a junior,” Schuman said. “There were good athletes in the grade above me. I guess hard work pays off.”
Guillean said while Schuman is “darn good at every sport here,” an athlete does not have to be a “top dog” in every sport.
“Learn how to take a back seat,” he said. “Learn how to be a role player. That will make you a better teammate and a well-rounded human being.
“Johnny has that work ethic, in the classroom, on the field, on the court, on the track. It doesn’t go unnoticed and, obviously, he’s reaping the benefits now.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Lawrence’s John Schuman has participated in five varsity sports during his first 3½ years of high school. (Middle) Lawrence athletic director John Guillean. (Below) Lawrence football and baseball coach Derek Gribler. (Action photos courtesy of John Schuman; head shots by Pam Shebest.)