AMITE, La. — One of the local football stars recently told his barber he might win three Heisman Trophies, though the barber only needs one.
They agreed to put it on the empty white shelf in the far corner, underneath the TV.
On this day in mid-June, an old green chalkboard hangs near the front door, black eraser balancing on top. Names rest between faded white streaks: “ISH CAM JR TAY TRE TRELL CAM.”
College football posters litter the back wall. Georgia, Miami, Ole Miss, Memphis. The mirror behind the barber chairs is plastered with school stickers.
There’s Alabama coach Nick Saban jogging in the corner, his autograph scribbled across his body.
“Look at this!”
Vincent Sanders, owner of George’s Barber Shop, points to the mirror behind him. A smiling Jimbo Fisher — the newest addition — stares in the direction of the door, signature emblazoned under his chin.
The departing customer nods his approval, then turns away and steps into the heat.
Two other customers sit near the far wall, their eyes glued to the TV. ESPN2 is on. “His & Hers.” A small gaggle of grade-school children circle the barber chairs.
A Liberty Mutual commercial appears, and one of the children repeats the dialogue by memory. Another smashes a cockroach with his tiny foot and tosses it into the wastebasket.
Devonta Smith used to be one of those kids.
About to enter his senior year at Amite (officially pronounced “Ay-meet,” though locals usually opt for “Ay-mitt”) High School, Smith arguably is the best wide receiver in the country. A 5-star prospect, he says he will decide between Alabama, LSU and Miami in August.
Any other small parish town would consider his presence a celebrity sighting, a flash of greatness that would — the townsfolk pray — bring ESPN cameras and one of those “Welcome to Amite: Home of…” signs.
But as he walks into the shop, there’s no entourage. No spectacle. Smith is not an anomaly; he’s the latest in a trend.
Tangipahoa, a humble Louisiana parish that recognizes Amite City as its chair, is home to three of the state’s best players from the 2016 class of Division I signees: Alabama cornerback Shyheim Carter (Kentwood High School), LSU defensive tackle Edwin Alexander (St. Thomas Aquinas) and LSU guard Donavaughn Campbell (Ponchatoula High School).
College coaches used to drive past all those schools on Interstate 55, skipping over Tangipahoa en route to New Orleans or Baton Rouge from Jackson, Miss.
Saban, Fisher, Jim Harbaugh, Les Miles and others now know they need to exit.
Amite produced Memphis safety Josh Perry this year, and coaches have flocked to campus to speak with Smith, the budding wide receiver.
Right now, he’s arguing with Sanders, the 45-year-old barber, about the NBA Finals. Game 6 is tonight, and the Golden State Warriors hold a 3-2 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Sanders — 6-foot-2 with a white T-shirt draped over his portly upper body and a face that vacillates from compassionate to kick-your-ass in a second flat — is sure the Cavs are going to win a second straight game.
“If J.R. shows out…”
Smith interrupts: “Kyrie won’t have another day like that.”
And so on.
Eventually, it’s time for Smith to leave. It’s summertime in a sleepy town, and there are friends looking for his company. As he walks out the door, he’s asked a simple question: “Where would you be if you didn’t have Vincent?”
The future Heisman winner doesn’t hesitate.
“I wouldn’t be playing football.”
They took Rose’s toe first.
Then the foot. Then the lower leg. Eventually, her hands were gone. Sanders’ mother was his “best friend,” and her battle with diabetes brought him back to Amite a little more than a decade ago.
The prodigal son left town for a Mississippi community college in the late 1980s, where he took classes for three semesters. Then he headed to Tuskegee University for a college football career.
In Alabama, he drove around Miller beer kegs for spare cash, spending more hours in bars near Auburn University than in classrooms on his own campus.
Sanders left school three credits shy of graduating (“History 417,” he remembers). He found work as a counselor at a juvenile lockdown facility, where he was sometimes forced — illegally — to supervise more than 100 kids at once. He held his own, shielding the troubled youths from violent outbursts by running basketball tournaments on the facility’s blacktop.
Sanders’ work with kids eventually got him noticed by a staffer from another center, and he bounced around similar jobs for the better part of 10 years, not realizing the pattern was a calling.
His moment of clarity did not arrive until his mother, Rose, began succumbing to her diabetes.
“The greatest day of your life is the day you was born,” Sanders is fond of saying. “The second-greatest day is the day you know WHY you was born.”
When his mother’s surgeries began, Sanders returned home and got a job at a center for children with mental health issues in nearby Hammond. A few months in, he applied for a teaching job at Amite Elementary — where his mother worked for 38 years as a principal, administrative assistant, and teacher — but was instead offered a gig supervising kids in the in-school suspension program.
He said yes, and it was during this time his mom gave him what he considers the most important talk of his life.
“I’m not gonna be living much longer,” Rose told her son. “The youth have got to step up. You’ve gotta start helping these kids.”
She died in July 2007 at the age of 66.
By then, Sanders had opened his own barbershop in Amite. His father, George, was a longtime barber, and still cuts hair every Tuesday at his son’s shop (the official name of the business is “George’s Barber Shop,” in his honor).
Dad had to pay the electric bill during the first month of operation, but the shop eventually become a gathering place for the community.
That’s when the outside world began to take notice of tiny Amite (population: 4,141).
Sam Petitto, a friend since kindergarten at Amite Elementary, was training high school and college athletes in the area around 2012 when he told Sanders to help out a group of local kids with their athletic careers.
The players needed exposure, Petitto said, and he saw how much local teenagers loved hanging with the loud barber on Oak Street.
(Petitto is now the recruiting coordinator at Alabama, and was unable to speak with SEC Country for this article due to a university rule prohibiting football assistants from speaking with the media.)
Sanders’ first task as a mentor: Helping the Johnson brothers get scholarship offers.
He hauled Jervenski and Devon Johnson — along with three other Amite High students — to football camps in summer 2012. Jervenski, a year older than Devon, was a virtually unknown 6-foot-4 wide receiver.
When Arkansas coaches saw him sprint at a Razorbacks camp, they didn’t need much time to deliberate. Jervenski had his first offer, and he quickly committed.
One year later, the multi-sport star signed a minor league baseball contract with the Boston Red Sox in Sanders’ shop, and his little brother, Devon — a 6-foot-5, 320-pound offensive tackle — committed to Tulane.
Sanders developed “BEAST 1 Athletics,” or “Bringing Educated Athletic Students Together, one kid at a time.” He rented vans from Enterprise to drive players from camp to camp in the offseason, and from college campus to college campus during the fall.
(On one trip, he left Amite at midnight with a trio of standout athletes — Shyheim Carter, Devonta Smith and Josh Perry — for an 8 a.m. camp at the University of Georgia. Sanders slept in the truck while the players ran through drills, and then drove them out to Clemson University, followed by camps at the University of Tennessee and Florida State University. These types of marathon journeys are Sanders’ way of making the most of his savings. Today, Sanders’ luggage remains in the trunk from his latest trip, and he plans on doing his laundry at a hotel this weekend.)
Folks in town noticed.
Some grew suspicious of Sanders’ role. Some sent their kids to him for guidance.
Now, the barbershop has become an unofficial Tangipahoa football headquarters. Kids fill it after high school games to watch regional “Friday Night Football” updates and break down game film.
“My kids don’t go out,” Sanders says. “I might have 25, 30 kids at my shop. I close at 10 o’clock, but I might stay until 1 in the morning. Yeah, I want to go to sleep, but the parents feel better knowing that they’re at the shop.”
When the high schoolers head home, they’re required to call or text Sanders and let them know they made it safely.
Sanders does not charge families for his services.
There are some community members who have made one-time donations to Sanders’ cause, but he says the bulk of his capital comes from the barbershop and the tattoo salon he owns next door.
Still, people talk.
Some call him a “handler” or a “bag man,” meaning he accepts various off-the-books favors from college programs in order to nudge players in specific directions — say, toward Tuscaloosa or Baton Rouge. His protected Twitter page — featuring a profile picture of him on the phone, and a grainy background picture of a large private jet — is indicative of a man trying to establish himself as a power broker.
But, several years into the recruiting “game,” red flags are tough to find in Amite; especially in the grass outside the shop.
“Man, that’s a 1995 SS Impala!” Sanders once told a suspicious inquisitor. “They go for like $4,000! Really?”
Sitting in the barber’s chair, he begins itemizing the clothes on his back.
“This shirt is five dollars!” he says. “These shorts were at the clearance at the Big & Tall for like… I forget the price. They were cheap! These shoes I bought from Nike factory for $29 on sale! I’m happy as I don’t know what. My feet are up. I got cable. Life is great!”
Amite High School football coach Zephaniah Powell adds: “I know from the outside looking in: ‘There’s a handler. This guy might be a handler. Yada yada yada.’ But with us, it’s not that way.”
When it comes to accepting gifts from strangers, Sanders has a simple question for his players: Did your momma buy it? If the answer is “no,” keep your hands off it.
There are other rules if you want to work with him, beginning with grade-point average: If you can’t scrape a 3.0 every semester, you can’t go on road trips.
One player finished his spring semester with a 2.9. He had to stay home while the other kids traversed the south all summer.
“If my aunt had nuts, she’d be my uncle,” Sanders says. “So what does that ‘if’ mean to me? You’re telling me the lottery is five numbers and the Powerball, right? If you get the five numbers and miss the Powerball by one number, are they going to give you the 200 million?”
“But you was close!”
“If somebody runs into a wall and it’s made out of paper, they’re gonna keep running into that wall because it ain’t gonna hurt. Right?” Sanders says. “If you’ve got a wall made of brick, and you run into it and get knocked on your head, you’re not gonna run into that wall again.”
The next semester, that same kid recorded a 4.0 GPA and now supports his family with a job at DOW Chemical.
Manners are important, too. His players are expected to use “sir” and “ma’am” when speaking to elders, and are taught to shake the hand of every barbershop customer upon entering the building.
Sanders doesn’t want to hear, “When I make it to the NFL…”
He wants to hear, “When I walk across that stage with my degree…”
“All I ask is to make good grades and to be respectful,” Sanders says. “I’ll speak up for you. I’ll get you interest. I’ll get you seen. You’ve just gotta perform when you get there.”
By the time Powell took the Amite coaching job in 2015, Sanders was attending all three of Amite’s premier offseason events: The booster meeting, male mentor meeting, and football parent community night.
Powell saw a man who was committed to doing good in the parish.
“Mr. Vincent finds those troubled kids that may have some potential — not only for football, but for basketball, baseball, track, whatever — and basically mentors them, ‘Hey, you can use what God is giving you to help you get out of here,’” Powell says. “Show you discipline. Show you how to be responsible. Show you how to be committed to something. Kids going down the wrong path or who don’t understand they can use football as a tool … he’s even more effective in that way.”
Amite has a long record of producing successful athletes, but the current attention from national programs is unparalleled in the town’s history.
That upswing in attention directly coincides with Sanders’ rise to regional fame.
“A lot of these colleges are coming in, they’re asking about our 2017 quarterback,” Powell says. “They’re asking about our 2017 running back. They’re asking about our 2019 freshman defensive tackle…”
The list goes on.
“It’s been hectic,” Powell says. “But having Mr. Vincent has been a blessing.”
The chalkboard is where the magic happens.
When a school offers a scholarship to a player, that player writes up a “pros and cons” list. If the latter outweigh the former, he strikes the school off his list.
Sanders researches the coaches with his kids: How long has the coach been at the college? How many players have been arrested? How many recruits start as freshmen? How often does the offense run the ball on second down? How many athletes have graduated? What types of degrees?
He snickers at schools that push out a bunch of “general studies” athletes.
Another research category: How many former players does a coach eventually bring back on staff?
“If you won’t even hire your own product,” Sanders says, “what kind of product are you putting out there?”
Players’ top 10 lists are drawn up on the board before they’re posted on Twitter.
“Pros and cons” narrow the list down to five — not released to the public — and eventually three.
Sanders says he stays out of the final decision.
“That’s the only thing they hate about me,” he says of his players. “I won’t tell ‘em where to go. I’m not gonna play a down for nobody. You’re the one going to college. Get on the board and write your pros and cons.”
Sanders is admittedly “not a real religious dude,” but he has a preacher’s soul. At various junctures of the discussion, he whips himself into a frenzy over society’s ills. The patrons in the waiting area — mostly silent — offer up a chorused “mm-hmm” when they think he’s on to something.
A demanding leader, he loathes not being the smartest person in the room. He keeps his Mac laptop nearby at all times so he can brush up on topics he’s heard others discussing.
“When somebody comes to me and has a conversation with me and I don’t know what they’re talking about, I feel like DYING,” he says.
That feeling spurred Sanders to eventually finish those neglected undergraduate credits and earn his first degree. Then, he decided to pick up another degree — business administration — from the University of Phoenix. Due to an obsessive interest in safety certifications, he also now has at least 25 of those.
To maintain transparency, he goes to his car and pulls out his “portfolio.”
In it, there’s a résumé, scanned copies of his identification and other important cards. He flips to the page that includes his certifications: Hazard communication, electric and high-voltage hazards, welding safety…
How often does he use any of these professionally?
“Never,” he says.
But he sees “everything that’s not safe”: A roof worker who’s not tied off. Gymnasium construction workers without hardhats. Forklift drivers without safety belts or proper driver’s training.
So he’s working on his master’s in occupational safety and health at Columbia Southern, another online school.
Also: “I’m kind of thinking about law school.”
“Because I’m scared to death of my kids getting messed over by an agent,” Sanders says. “So when they’re talking to him, I want to be able to say, ‘He’s lying. That’s not true. You don’t need to do that.’”
Sanders is all about proof. He wants evidence that his kids are working hard. He doesn’t just want a text. He needs a photo. Now!
When a kid tweets from the weight room, there had better be a video to go along with it. He encourages kids to “snitch” on their peers if something is amiss, and wants community members to holler at his kids if they’re somewhere they’re not supposed to be.
He claims the kids can’t lie to him.
“You can try! You can try,” Sanders says. “But it ain’t gonna happen. Because I’mma know it. You’re gonna get nervous lying to me because I don’t lie to you. And then when I find out, you know it’s gonna be a horrible day. I ain’t gonna give up on you, but I’m gonna say some words to you that’s just gonna crush you.”
For example: “‘You disappointed me.’ That kills ‘em. Their head just drops.”
He applies the same standard to himself.
“If you lie to a kid, you’re done,” he says. “You’re done.”
Sanders begins smacking the nearest surface with his right palm between every word.
“Becuse [slap] he’s [slap] always [slap] gonna [slap] remember [slap] that [slap] time [slap] you [slap] lied.”
There’s a generational cycle in Amite and its surrounding areas; one that Sanders desperately wants to stop.
The ratio of “bad kids” to “good kids” is high enough to make Sanders raise his voice when he discusses it. His customers tell him stories: High schoolers with children old enough to be riding the same district school bus. Grandmothers, mothers and daughters “in the club at the same time.”
When Sanders heard that a local mother bought an iPhone for her son, who was suspended from school at the time, he cornered her at his tattoo parlor next door and cussed her out until she agreed to return the gift.
These kids need black role models, Sanders says, and he’s giving them one: An African-American man from town who left home and then made something of himself when he settled back in and started his own business.
He says he doesn’t want his players sending him checks if they make it to the NFL.
Instead: “Come back to the neighborhood and YOU help a kid.”
Shyheim Carter, now a freshman cornerback at Alabama, could be one of those professional stars one day. He was a scrawny middle school student when Sam Petitto introduced him to Sanders.
Sanders helped turn Carter’s awful backpedaling technique into one of the nation’s best, and he also provided an adult male presence for a kid whose biological father was “out of his life,” according to Carter’s mother.
This morning, he sent Carter a text message in the early hours: “Just wanted to let you know I’m super proud of you.”
The response: “Appreciate it. Thanks for bringing me around the world and showing me what it takes to become a man in life.”
In a similar way, he’s built a strong relationship with Devonta Smith, the 5-star wideout. In fact, Sanders was the one who forced Smith — also a basketball star — to play football as a freshman in high school.
Smith “hated it,” but relented when he began scoring multiple touchdowns a game.
Now, he’s one of 22 parish high-schoolers that Sanders currently counts as “his” kids.
Tangipahoa’s traveling pack of D-I players has caught the attention of more than just southern Louisiana athletes. Sanders has been receiving requests from across the country to help boost kids’ recruiting stock. California. Texas. Virginia.
Blair Allen Garner, an eighth-grade quarterback from South Carolina, sent Sanders a direct message on Twitter earlier this year, looking for mentorship.
Sanders ignored it.
“I’ll watch your tape,” he said without any intent to do so.
The kid sent more messages. His father called Sanders asking for assistance. More messages.
Eventually, Sanders relented and clicked “play.” Garner’s talent blew him away, and the Class of 2020 player’s work ethic — lots of Twitter videos for proof! — sealed the deal.
More out-of-state players will be on Sanders’ voicemail soon, thanks to his impressive major-college connections.
Locally, he’s also trying to give kids a mental edge. Those film sessions at the barbershop focus on specific decision-making and key skills for every position.
Sanders believes there is a reason Carter is ready to compete for a starting cornerback spot at Alabama as a true freshman this autumn, and there is a reason Smith is perhaps the nation’s top high-school wide receiver despite the fact that he’s only 6-foot-1.
“Devonta knows why he’s running that route that way,” Sanders says. “My kids understand the mental part of it. When my kids are in 7th or 8th grade, they’re learning how to break down film. So when they get to the next level, they’re so far advanced that people don’t get it.”
The barber has contact info for several members of football royalty in his iPhone, but he wants to meet a different kind of celebrity.
“I think I’ll cry when it happens,” he says.
Then, a pause. He wonders if he should say it.
“I want to meet Steve Harvey.”
Sanders wants to work at Harvey’s annual “Mentoring Camp for Young Men.” It would be incredibly emotional for him, he says, to be able to thank Harvey for his inspiration.
“If God told me, ‘You could be the president, or do what Steve Harvey does and be flat broke,’ I would do that,” Sanders says. “Because he affects kids. Thousands at a time. Every summer. C’mon, man. Who can say that? Who can I say, ‘I changed a thousand kids’ lives just this summer?’”
Which leads us to the ultimate plan for BEAST 1 Athletics.
“In 10 years, I’m gonna have 10 kids in the NFL,” Sanders says.
He walks over to the chalkboard and draws a crude map of the United States. He begins dotting the map with hypothetical landing spots for his players.
Each dot also represents a “compound,” which will consist of a large building — for academic and administration purposes — and six football fields. These sites will serve as destination “satellite camps.”
Major college football coaches will move across the circuit from site to site, scouting the local athletes who can’t afford plane tickets and lodging in a faraway region. Black colleges will go through the circuit, too. HBCUs. Division II schools. NAIA schools. A collection of junior colleges.
“Every kid is gonna have an opportunity,” Sanders says.
He’ll have one requirement to attend the camps and get on the field: a 2.8 core GPA. If a kid doesn’t have the required résumé, he or she can use the academic resources in the main building, free of charge. It’s a tax write-off for whichever one of Sanders’ NFL players helps found that particular facility.
Under Armour will sponsor camps and provide kids with gear. Gatorade will provide the beverages.
It’s going to cost $25 per camper.
“That’s gonna get you a T-shirt,” Sanders says, “and you’re there for the whole day. I’m running two sessions. You can’t beat that with an egg beater.”
If families can’t pay…
“We’ll work something out.”
Location, price and exposure would become non-problems. Sanders wants to eliminate any possible excuse for a kid not to show up and put in the work.
Sanders says no one has heard his plan before.
Can we put it in the story?
“You can,” he says. “It’s gonna happen for me.”