'Fighting an identity crisis': No longer a Chippewa, Kamal Hadden navigates tough past, hopeful future
It was 3 a.m. in December 2017. He was asleep at his home in Ypsilanti. Going to bed hours earlier, he had no clue what the night would bring.
Kamal Hadden’s eyes were closed, his heartbeat at a consistent rate.
The vibration of steady breaths saturated the otherwise silent bedroom as Hadden slept.
Bang, bang, bang.
“I woke up to ringing gun sounds,” Hadden said, recalling that night. “It sounded like it was right next to my head.”
The moment his eyes opened, the then 16-year-old dashed to find his older brother, the man that has always meant the most to him.
His mother and aunt were sleeping on the couch, where bullets were zooming above their heads just hours before the rest of the city would wake up for work in the morning.
Nobody inside the house was physically injured in the altercation that went unsolved.
Bullet holes in the wall were aplenty; shattered glass was strewn everywhere.
That didn’t matter. Everyone in the home was safe.
It wasn't the first time something like that occurred in Hadden's life. Just two years prior, in December 2015, a 20-year-old was fatally shot in a drive-by in front of his home.
“Every day was a struggle for us,” said Jeannette Hadden, Kamal’s mother. “Ypsilanti is riddled with young people committing crimes, guns, violence and gang violence. It’s devastating. To keep your head above all that is difficult for an adult, let alone a young person Kamal’s age.”
Kamal was supposed to be a cornerback for the Central Michigan football team this fall upon graduation from River Rouge High School. However, the day before his June 19 move-in date, the news became official – his grades slipped below the mark of a 2.3 grade-point average needed to qualify for Division I athletics.
His life consisted of these things: Acting as a father-figure for his family, making sure his mother was safe at all times, refraining from drug and gang violence, watching his older brother face life in prison, and the gateway out, football.
Kamal’s situation became even more complicated after hearing about his inability to join the Chippewas, the only Division I offer to his name.
The story of Kamal Hadden is more than just a boy raised by a single mother in a gang-infested area of Ypsilanti. Rather, his journey has everything to do with surviving an identity crisis, learning to strategically take on the challenges of life and, ultimately, achieving the goals set in place no matter how difficult they may seem.
Crying from Oklahoma to Kansas
The people Kamal trusted most in life were his mother, Jeannette; his aunt, Collette Jordan; and his older brother, Karon Hadden.
When Jeannette was busy at work, Collette spent time with the kids. If Jeannette needed a favor, Collette always helped. The two were inseparable, thus creating a bond between Kamal and his aunt.
Upon receiving the news of his poor grades, his mother questioned what was next. Collette did, too.
Kamal never worried.
“Mom, I’m going to Kansas,” Kamal said, referring to Independence Community College.
“What do you mean, you’re going to Kansas?” his mother questioned. “What’s in Kansas?”
“I’m going to take a different route,” Kamal responded.
Kamal went on to explain Last Chance U, a popular Netflix show that showcases the life of NJCAA (also known as junior college or JUCO) football players. Seasons 3 and 4 focused specifically on Independence CC. He also told his mother that he already dual enrolled at CMU and Indy CC, knowing before graduation that his grades were on the fence.
“I think I binged watched (Last Chance U) all in two days, literally,” Jeannette said. “I emailed the head coach without (Kamal) knowing. I said, ‘What I’m interested in is that my son is going to get the help and push he needs to get to his academic level to the Division I level.’”
First-year Independence CC coach Kiyoshi Harris responded quickly, explaining that Kamal had been in contact with him on multiple occasions to explain his situation. He delivered the plan to get him on track academically while continuing to provide an opportunity for football.
Jeannette was blown away by her son’s decision to dual enroll without any help, remain in contact with two coaches – Jim McElwain at CMU and Harris at Indy CC – and set himself up with options before it was too late.
Once Kamal fully committed to his move to the JUCO level, he began packing his bags for Independence, Kansas.
Departing from the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport on July 5, Kamal had a one-way trip booked for the Tulsa International Airport in Oklahoma, a full two hours away from Independence. By his side, until the moment Kamal’s plane departed, were Jeannette and Collette.
When his plane landed in Tulsa, Kamal opened Facebook, something he rarely did.
His aunt Colette died an unexpected death that doctors believe may have been caused by a heart attack. She was 54 years old.
“All the way from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Independence, Kansas, I cried,” Kamal said. “I cried and cried.”
Colette was like Kamal’s father or a second mother, as his birth mother Jeannette described their relationship. The Indy CC coaching staff allowed Kamal to return to Michigan for her funeral in mid-July.
“If I wasn’t here, she was here,” Jeannette, 56, said. “Even though she didn’t live with us, she was here most of the time. Stuff that you wouldn’t talk to your mom about, they’d talk to her about. That was their confidant.
“We have video footage of that morning. She was fine. I think that was part of why it was so hard for him.”
Football now holds a new meaning for Kamal due to the death of his aunt Collette. The pair often found themselves in prolonged, comprehensive conversations about Kamal making it to the NFL, supporting a family of his own and his continuous growth from a boy to a man.
“I have to do it for her,” Kamal said. “Everything I do from here on out is for her.”
Talking to his brother behind bars
Christopher Marsh Jr., 19, was found fatally wounded at approximately 9:30 p.m. on April 26, 2018, outside Glencoe Hills Apartments complex in the 2100 block of Glencoe Hills Drive in Pittsfield Township. Marsh was transported to St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, where he died from injuries.
Marsh was a student-athlete for Eastern Michigan’s now-disbanded wrestling team during the winter semester that year.
Police believe Kamal’s brother, Karon, was involved in the shooting that was due to a robbery during a meet-up for narcotics.
A SWAT operation spread across three counties Oct. 2, six months after the fatal shooting, led to the arrest of five people in the Ypsilanti area linked to the death of Marsh.
“When the police came to my house, that really took a toll on me,” Kamal said. “I was scared for my life.”
Karon, 19; Deandre Hinton, 18; Charles Robertson, 19; Camron Williams-Evans, 19; and Garvin Crout, 19, are facing life in prison without parole for the death of Marsh, according to the Pittsfield Township Police Department. They all face 11 felony counts in connection to the murder.
During the preliminary exam, it was noted the five men allegedly worked together as members of a gang called OTF900, meaning “only the family” with the 900 representing the block they lived on.
Just like that, one of the people Kamal loved the most was locked behind bars in the Washtenaw County Jail without bond. All five men are there to this day.
Even though Karon sits in Washtenaw County Jail, it is where Jeannette was employed as an outreach worker. She was active in her duties for the jail even when the police raided her house in search of her oldest son. Since then, she has moved to Ozone House, a non-profit organization that supports young people in crisis.
Moments like those, Jeannette said, made Kamal a stronger man.
“Every day, when he practices in the field across the street from our house or runs laps around the house, it’s all about getting out of here – getting his family out,” Jeannette said. “Doing what it takes to move as far away from this place as possible.”
Kamal, just a year younger than Karon, talks with his brother every other day. One is following his football dreams; the other is behind bars. Kamal said he doesn’t believe the crime was committed by Karon.
The brothers follow a simple slogan Karon created during his time in jail: “Born to die, built to last.” Kamal said his brother struggles in jail, especially since he entered at 18 years old and was surrounded by grown men. The quote is meant to keep each other in good spirits, regardless of the current situation.
Like he does for his aunt Collette, Kamal plays football for his brother – someone that might never see him on the field again.
“Me and him, we went through so much and did everything together,” Kamal said. “Him going away really hurt me. I want to make it for him, too. When I do, I want to be able to help him and make sure he’s going to be alright.”
Above Collette and Karon is Kamal’s mother. Without Jeannette, he doesn’t know where he’d be today.
“I’m so grateful for her. I don’t know how any other woman would react off what we’ve been through,” Kamal said. “She’s the strongest woman I’ve ever met.”
Corey Parker impacts Kamal's life
Growing up without a father-figure in his life was tough, Kamal said. But when he transferred from Ypsilanti High School to River Rouge before his junior year, his chance at success finally became clear as football coach Corey Parker stepped in.
“He showed me a lot,” Kamal said, referencing Parker as like a father to him. “I was trying to leave that environment (at Ypsilanti). It got really wild. What really put the icing on the cake was when my house got shot up (in 2017). My mom didn’t want me around it anymore.”
Parker said Kamal’s college situation would have been much different from an academic and social standpoint if he had been at River Rouge for all four years of high school, explaining his grades at Ypsilanti were well-below where they needed to be.
When Kamal arrived at River Rouge and started football practice, Parker said he didn’t know how to trust his teammates, set goals or win as a collective unit. By the time the 2018 season ended, Kamal’s perspective on life changed.
He went to class, didn’t miss practice, took college visits, planned for the future, made close friends and, more than anything, became a leader rather than a follower.
“We’re dealing with a young man who was fighting an identity crisis,” Parker said. “He has to fight those temptations of getting involved in the same type of behavior (as his brother). His brother’s not a bad guy, he just didn’t have any firm leadership.
“My opportunity was to make sure he knew we cared about him and loved him, but we weren’t going to tolerate him not becoming the best him.”
As a close friend of Kentucky defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale, Parker inquired on Kamal’s opportunity to grow as a football player and, potentially, make it to the NFL. Being that Kamal is a 6-foot-1, 175-pound cornerback, Clinkscale gave high praise for his length, lateral quickness, foot speed, attitude and swagger to be “on an island” in the secondary.
“Kamal is a Power 5 defensive back, without a doubt,” Parker recalled Clinkscale telling him. “If he goes to that level and performs the way we think he can perform, there’s nothing stopping him from playing on Sundays. Nothing.”
Even McElwain knew the type ability the River Rouge product would bring to the Chippewas when he spoke about him during the December early signing period, just a few weeks after accepting the position to take over the team after former coach John Bonamego was fired.
“He adds some great length to our secondary, plays with terrific tenacity and is really a bulldog,” McElwain said before Kamal’s high school grades were official.
Once again, a Division I hopeful
The thought of becoming a Chippewa is far from over. Kamal has 18 months to play two football seasons at the JUCO level. Once that’s over, as long as his grades are in check, he will get the opportunity to seek a Division I scholarship and sign in December 2020.
“In four years, I don’t see why he wouldn’t be playing Division I football and preparing for the NFL draft,” Parker said.
Even though he has dreams of playing SEC football, returning to Mount Pleasant as a star cornerback for Central Michigan isn’t out of the picture.
“Hopefully, once this is all over, we can come back and be a part of the family,” Jeannette said.
But Kamal, of all people, probably said it best.
“I know God ain’t put me through this for no reason,” he said. “With all the darkness and rain, there’s going to be some sunshine and a good outcome.”