In early June, defensive back KJ Sails stood on the steps of Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, tears streaming down his face while the rain continued to fall on the crowd gathered in front of him.
The Unity Walk on June 6 led him and hundreds of USF and Tampa Bay community members to congregate at the heart of Central Park Village.
There, Sails made a promise — rebuild the community he once called home.
“I made a promise that whenever I am in a place of power I will bring back Central Park Village the right way, and I will build the neighborhood back the right way, and I will go and help other neighborhoods around the Tampa, Florida, area,” he said earlier this week.
Once a hub for Black businesses and entertainers, Central Park Village fell victim to racial and economic struggles in the 1960s and the once-booming neighborhood came to a screeching halt.
On the surface, it’s a community rocked by neglect and disenfranchisement. For Sails and many others, the neighborhood is where families grew. Sails’ own family lived there, and he spent a good portion of his youth in the community.
“I remember being there when I was a young boy going to the Boys and Girls Club across the street,” he said.
It was by no means a wealthy neighborhood, but it was rich in family, and it was called home by so many.
“In the projects back in the day, if you knew how it looked, it wasn’t too clean then, but it was a place that us African Americans could call home and we lived there for years, and years and years,” Sails said. “It was a big family atmosphere.”
Despite a tight-knit community, Sails began to question the crumbling infrastructure and lack of thriving businesses.
“Nobody ever asked those people, ‘How are you guys living, what is your experience like?’ I guarantee you it’s not a good experience sometimes, and that’s because of the environment that they’re living in,” he said.
The origins of his political aspirations stem from his desire to take action.
“If you change that [the infrastructure], if they know that people care about them and the way they live, then they’ll have better lives,” Sails said.
Known as “The Mayor” of Tampa, Sails has channeled his on-field success into ambitions of actually leading the City of Tampa one day.
Quarterback Jordan McCloud, someone who Sails said is “like a brother,” believes in Sails’ goal.
“We’ve just got one goal. And that’s just to lead this great community in the right way, in a positive way,” McCloud said. “That’s why I’m fortunate to know somebody that wants to be a mayor, and I believe he has a shot to be a mayor ‘cause of the things he’s very passionate about.
“I’m standing right there by his side.”
Quite literally did he stand by Sails’ side at the Unity Walk that day in June. Also standing with Sails was coach Jeff Scott.
“[Scott] came to me and said, ‘You’re a good football player, and you’re going to be successful with whatever you do but outside of football is what I’m most excited about,’” Sails said. “Not only is Scott a football coach, but he’s also a coach of life skills.”
Since his arrival, he’s fostered leadership skills that go beyond football.
“For him to tell me that, that was something huge because I know that I’m more than just an athlete,” Sails said.
Aside from the leadership he’s shown in the community, Sails has taken the formal steps toward his goal of becoming mayor of Tampa. He joined the Lee Roy Selmon Mentoring Institute, which connects USF athletes with leaders of the Tampa community.
In Sails’ case, he’s being mentored by Tampa Mayor Jane Castor.
“This program actually works and it actually puts student-athletes in a position to be successful,” Sails said. “When I meet with Jane, we’re going to talk about shadowing her and learn more about becoming a man in a position of leadership.”
Sails said he wants to create a legacy at USF. In terms of on-field success, that’s clear — win a trophy. But off the field, he’s hoping his future political career and passion for rebuilding his community speaks the loudest for his time at USF.
“I want to be remembered for that person who wasn’t scared to speak out for the community, who wasn’t scared to leave North Carolina and come back home to my family,” Sails said.
“I wasn’t scared to show that, and I continue to show that because it doesn’t stop here.”