Ernest Hooper: Bus ride takes young football players on poignant trip of redemption

Debbie Baigrie, Bryan Stevenson and Ian Manuel recently shared their story of forgiveness with members of the Brandon Bears and Jackson Heights Junior Buccaneers. Manuel was 13 when he shot Baigrie.
Debbie Baigrie, Bryan Stevenson and Ian Manuel recently shared their story of forgiveness with members of the Brandon Bears and Jackson Heights Junior Buccaneers. Manuel was 13 when he shot Baigrie.
Published Aug. 4, 2017

The bus carried the former NFL player back in time.

It transported Tyrone Keys back to his days as a member of the Chicago Bears 1985 Super Bowl Shuffle team. It took him back to shifting from the Bears to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and eventually starting a nonprofit effort in Tampa that has touched the lives of thousands of kids since 1992.

The bus propelled a group of kids into the future.

It transported members of the Jackson Heights Junior Buccaneers and Brandon Bears youth football teams to Montgomery, Ala., where they learned lessons about life, love, persistence and forgiveness. It delivered them to a place where they discovered caring for others is more important than caring for themselves.

The bus transformed the entrepreneur.

It picked up Tampa's Debbie Baigrie, once a victim in a botched robbery attempt, and turned her into a teacher. It allowed her to team with Ian Manuel, the man who shot her as a 13-year-old back in 1990, and took the kids into life's classroom.

Each shared a curriculum you can't find in textbooks. Baigrie told how she forgave Manuel, and Manuel spoke of his fortitude through 18 years in prison.

From one bus, one nine-hour trip, one journey, came a multitude of meaning for all involved. Keys dubbed it the Weapons of Love Tour.

It started on July 26 and as the kids rode down the highway, the Bears' campy theme song, The Super Bowl Shuffle, blared out of the bus' speakers. Keys was stunned when one of the Brandon Bears players knew all the lyrics of the rap tune, in which the Chicago players boldly predicted a Super Bowl victory.

For Keys, who appears in the video playing keyboards, the recording of the song represented more than a light-hearted moment during the championship run. The Bears recorded the song the day after its hopes of an unbeaten season came to an end in a 38-21 loss to the Miami Dolphins in the Orange Bowl.

"My message to the kids was, regardless of where you are in life, you can turn a setback into a comeback," Keys explained. "We turned a setback into a comeback by speaking about winning the Super Bowl and donating the funds to those in need."

Baigrie traveled with the kids, but they thought she was a team mom. Not until Manuel stood before them, 27 years to the day after he pulled the trigger outside Cold Storage in downtown Tampa, and told how a single mistake cost him half his life, did they learn Baigrie was the survivor. He gestured to Baigrie in the back of room and explained the bullet tore her jaw and face apart and almost took her life.

"The kids looked around to see who he was speaking of," Keys said. "Ian could not believe we had not told them."

That moment, Keys said, took the kids to another dimension. They began to talk about peer pressure and the adverse impacts that come from being bullied.

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"One kid shared that he is made fun of because he has autism," Keys said. "Ian came off the stage and hugged him. We ended up with pictures of the kids hugging each other after hearing all these stories."

Bryan Stevenson's Equal Justice Institute, based in Montgomery, took on Manuel's case and argued that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a 13-year-old child to die in prison.

With its help, Manuel earned his release in November 2016 and Baigrie was there to greet him. He's currently in an institute program that helps former child inmates adapt to life outside prison.

The journey concluded with a trip to the Civil Rights Monument in Montgomery, where the players learned a story of teamwork that drew people of all races and from all walks of life together to fight for the cause. It honors 41 people who lost their lives, including Viola Liuzzo, the Detroit mother of five who came to Alabama for the Selma March only to be murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.

Ricky Sailor, Jamal Jefferson, Maurice McCullough and Jasmine Tramel — four men who benefited through Keys' early work as teens — partnered with Keys to help cover the cost and traveled with the players. Their willingness to return and help another generation lent another lesson.

In the end, the Weapons of Love Tour left everyone involved with tools to process the past, soldier through the present and build for the future. Sometimes, a bus can carry a lot.

That's all I'm saying.

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