MADISON HEIGHTS, Mich. – When he signed to play college football at Dakota College of Bottineau in late February, it was yet another triumph for Torohn Yancey against the adversity that he's faced in his life.
Take that, frequent homelessness. You’re not going to prevent me from being a student-athlete and starting my own business out of a hotel room.
Take that, time period when I was a high school dropout. You didn’t destroy me, and now I’m taking care of business academically.
Take that, anyone who believes I don’t have a future. What happened in my past doesn't define me -- and it's not the final chapter of my life.
Yancey’s story is a remarkable journey of heartache and poverty, but also of dogged perseverance to not let those obstacles win.
“It’s a story that Hollywood would turn away due to thinking it wasn’t believable,” said Jeff Glynn, Yancey’s high school football coach.
Given Yancey’s story, that's hard to argue.
An expulsion and many bus rides
Recently, Yancey was taking in a quiet moment, sitting inside Madison Heights Lamphere High School in suburban Detroit, after finishing up another school day.
There aren’t many more left for Yancey, a senior who only has a few months left in that building, which for the most part, has been his home the past two years.
“I don’t even know where to start,” Yancey said with a wry smile as he began to describe his journey.
For the past four years, Yancey has frequently been homeless, alternating between living in hotels with his mother and little brother, or staying with his grandmother.
Yancey hasn’t had much of a relationship with his father throughout his life, and his mother is on disability, unable to work or drive due to arthritis in her hands.
There was only one source of income that allowed the family to afford the hotel rooms.
“My dad’s child support,” Yancey said. “That’s the only thing.”
When Yancey was a freshman at neighboring Madison Heights Madison High School, he said being teased by various seniors ultimately led to him losing his cool.
“I’m one of those kids who likes to bottle up stuff,” he said. “I don’t like to get too emotional. I’m just always happy and stuff. One day, I just got fed up and snapped on a kid in the classroom. I threw a desk at him and ended up getting expelled.”
Now, Yancey has to catch three buses or just walk, in order to get to school at Lamphere, although that situation has actually improved from the second semester of his freshman year.
After getting expelled from Madison, Yancey moved on and attended Warren Cousino, which consisted of more bus rides each day than some kids experience in an entire school year.
“I had to catch six buses and then walk up (to school),” he said. “It would be me, my mom and my little brother just catching buses. If we caught the bus at 4 a.m., the earliest we would get to our school would be like, 9-ish. Every day we did that, for about six months straight.”
But because Yancey was often tardy, the school during the second semester of his sophomore year sent a letter to his mom, saying Yancey needed to start showing up to school on time, or else school officials would call a truancy officer.
Yancey considered that, then made a decision once his sophomore year was finished.
“I just ended up dropping out because I didn’t want to put that on my mom,” Yancey said. “So then I was just on the couch for four months. (There was) nothing to do and (I) was getting into trouble.”
Knowing the streets nor the couch were where he belonged, both Yancey and his mom thought getting back into school was the answer, and after moving into another hotel, Yancey enrolled at Lamphere, a school where he reunited with some of his friends from middle school.
“There was some trouble at home,” he said. “So we moved into a Motel 6. I used that residency to get into Lamphere. I was just coming here, trying to get out of trouble.”
The trouble didn’t end, as Yancey ended up hitting rock bottom once he returned to school in the winter of 2017.
But at the same time, hitting that low point also gave birth to his status as an entrepreneur.
Starting a business from a hotel room
Yancey couldn’t have felt much worse, physically or mentally, than around this time a year ago, when he sat in a hotel room with what he thought was a cold after competing on Lamphere’s wrestling team.
“It ended up being vertigo and I ended up having four infections in my face,” he said. “I ended up getting diagnosed with depression all at the same time. I was (on) bed rest for like, two months.”
Desperate, Yancey, an avid churchgoer, made a plea for help.
“I’m praying every night,” he said. “I’m like, ‘God, if you get me out of this, I don’t care what it is or what I’ve got to do. I’m going to start hustling. I’m going to do something to get my mind off of this.'”
Yancey meant hustling as more of a way to describe wanting to work and do things the right way, and as someone who loved drawing and designing, an idea came to him.
“I go home the next day and said, ‘I think I’ve got an idea,'" he said. "So I decided started designing shirts and stuff.”
From his hotel room and using only his phone to come up with designs, Yancey then launched a T-shirt design business.
“When people think I’m just texting, I’m designing stuff all day,” he said. “The first day I started, I busted out 300 designs and I started posting it.”
Yancey used Instagram to post his designs, and obviously, his work was well-received by those in the school who learned of it and placed orders.
At first though, he had to make the shirts himself.
“I would go to Meijer and would get the heat transfers,” Yancey said. “I’d go to FedEx and I would print them out, cut them out, and iron the logo on a shirt.”
Once T-shirts were made, Yancey would sell them outside the school for $15.
The early returns were promising.
“Within the next five months, I made $8,000,” said Yancey, who now has the T-shirts printed by a company and delivered to him. “That goes to the brand.”
There’s no website for his company, but he does have a page on Instagram called “playmakersfranchise.”
“When I get down, the thing that gets me up is hustling,” Yancey said.
Forging a football future
Yancey also hustled a lot on the football field the past two years at Lamphere, as a 6 foot, 1 inch, 250-pound defensive lineman, earning all-conference honors the last two seasons.
Yancey's last year of football was technically supposed to be in 2017, but because he dropped out for that one semester, he was granted a final football season of eligibility as a “super senior.”
“The rule is that you have four years in each semester to be able to compete in athletics,” Glynn said. “Since he didn’t he compete his sophomore year, he was able to compete in his fourth fall semester.”
When Yancey arrived at Lamphere, his grade-point average was .8. Thanks to two consecutive semesters of having a GPA over 3.0, his overall GPA has climbed to 1.9.
While his grades were improving and his business was thriving, uncertainty still lingered about what he would do after graduating high school.
Yancey wanted to play college football, and vigorously researched junior college options, given he was a late bloomer academically and is about caught up on the time he missed while he dropped out.
Yancey found out about Dakota College of Bottineau, a junior college in Bottineau, North Dakota, near the Minnesota border.
“I emailed (the head coach) and basically poured out everything to him,” Yancey said. “A month ago, he called me back out of nowhere. He said, ‘I really think you can be a great football player and have the potential to at least play FCS.’”
Yancey committed to play at the school, despite never paying an official visit or even traveling to the small town where the college is located.
“I looked online,” he said.
Yancey knows he’ll have a home when he gets there, since he will be staying in a dorm, but there still might be some nervousness to go along with all of his excitement.
He’ll be going in blind, having never been to the town. It will be the first extended period of time away from his family, and he’s not exactly going to be improving his weather situation, going farther north to even harsher winters.
But after spending much of his life walking to bus stops or schools in sub-zero temperatures, and wondering where he would sleep some nights, Yancey isn’t worried at all.
“I come from nothing,” he said.
Yancey said until he started sharing his story with teammates before the season started, he never thought about what it would be like to tell it to others.
He said it didn’t seem like a big deal and that the words didn’t seem right when he explained his story.
But without question, Yancey’s story and the perseverance he has shown through it all will be an inspiration around his community for ages.
“It’s almost like the ‘The Blind Side,’” said Glynn, referring to a movie chronicling the troubled past of former NFL lineman Michael Oher. “It’s moving. Some of the things that he’s gone through -- that’s a generational thing. His family before him has dealt with that. What he’s doing now, from a .8 to almost a 2.0 overall GPA, that’s something that is not going to change his life, but it’s going to change his kids’ life and his grandkids’ life. That is why it is so amazing. In coaching, we’re the ones supposed to be making an impact on the lives of kids. What people don’t realize is that those kids end up making more of an impact on us. He’s a prime example of a kid we are going to talk about for a long time here.”