'Last Chance U' counselor helps guide undefeated Madison Heights football team

Posted at 9:43 PM, Nov 06, 2017
and last updated 2017-11-07 00:01:45-05

Last November, Madison High School principal David Hurnevich sat on his couch and binge-watched a Netflix show.

Principals, they're just like us.

The documentary series he watched, 'Last Chance U,' made him realize college football players at East Mississippi Community College were just like some of the kids at his school. 

“Although it was a story about football and championships, really what stood out was an opportunity for an academic advisor, Brittany Wagner, to make real connections with her football players, with students," Hurnevich said.

As soon as he got word of the show to the district’s superintendent, it didn’t take long to invite Brittany Wagner to Madison Heights. And it also didn’t take long for her to say yes.

Wagner has become a sensation thanks to her attitude and toughness on 'Last Chance U.' The school's counselor has helped college football players who, for one reason or another, found themselves removed from their top-tier Division-I team. She has guided students in the classroom leap from their 'last chance' to new opportunities with other top programs.

“I believe in second chances.. Look, we all screw up. And maybe some screw-ups are more severe than others, but we’ve all made bad decisions," Wagner recently said on ABC's 'Nightline.'

In Madison Heights, the graduating class at Madison High school will be less than 100 students this year. it’s a smaller school, and its a school of choice, so it's truly a melting pot, made up of kids from cities all over Metro Detroit.

"When it comes to differences, there’s a lot of ethnicities here, people come from different economic backgrounds, academic backgrounds," Madison quarterback Austin Brown said.

In recent years, Madison has become a place for transfer students looking for a second chance in life. That means discipline, among other life lessons, are preached every day.

“When she came, we all kinda woke up. When you see the Netflix series, you see it, you watch the episodes, but you got this lady in front of us telling us, we had people start where you started from, and there's a way, you listen. You want to get there," Madison linebacker Dominik Rowell said. 

Rowell is one of the team's most impactful transfers, named a captain in his junior season. He's also the first to admit he is the type of player Wagner came to talk to when she was invited.

"This lady has been dealing with kids like me all her life," Rowell said. "No, she’s not an outsider. She may tell you something that may take you to the next level."

For Rowell, his next level includes more than just himself. The high school junior is a father.

“I got a son. I had my son at 15. For my dad to leave me before my senior year, it's it’s gut-checking. It makes you think, you know, I gotta step up my game," he added.

"My story is a dime a dozen. It’s just what you make of it.”

Wagner's impact has helped shape a theme of unity with the team. Brown, the team's quarterback, often hosts up to 10 players at his house after games. His family has grown since he transferred from Novi Catholic Central High School.

Madison's football team is undefeated, and just won a district championship. The players have their eyes on better lives for themselves -- and a ring this fall.

"We’re human beings. These people are human beings. What do we think we’re gonna do with them? If we don’t give them a second chance, when they’re probably not really ready to make some mature, good decisions, if we don’t give them a chance then, what do we think’s gonna happen?” Wagner asked.

If Last ChanceU is a national sensation, Madison’s players are finding themselves in their own storybook journey.

The team's head coach, James Rogers, is someone who also transferred during his high school career. He saw the impact of Wagner's visit right away.

"She showed them there's other kids out there like them," Rogers said.

And now they're realizing how to carve out a path with their own identity. And writing a pretty remarkable story as they do.