Aaron Vinson Jr. is someone football coaches would describe as a late-bloomer .
Although the River Rouge senior grew up playing youth football, he didn’t play his sophomore year after transferring from Detroit King.
He had a good but not spectacular junior season and is just now catching the attention of college coaches as a receiver and outside linebacker.
Over the first five games, he has 15 receptions for 250 yards and five touchdowns for the unbeaten and No. 4-ranked team in Division 5.
Vinson, 6-feet-2, 180 pounds, is an affable, good-hearted youngster who gets along with his teammates and everyone else in school.
“He’s not a troubled kid, he’s really focused,” said his father, Aaron Vinson Sr. “If I didn’t tell you what he’s been through, you probably wouldn’t know.”
After you read about all Vinson has been through below, you might wonder why isn’t he a troubled kid. But that is where football comes in.
The sport has been a safe haven for a youngster who has seen things no kid should ever see.
It began as an 11-year-old when Vinson went in the basement to find his 12-year-old sister, Alex. When he reached the bottom of the stairs, Vinson found her limp body hanging from the ceiling.
“She hanged herself,” Vinson said.
Vinson raced up the stairs and outside to get his mother, who was waiting in the car.
“I got her out of the car, but at first she didn’t believe me,” he said. “Then we went down and she saw her, too. I didn’t know what to do. I was scared.”
He was scared and then crushed. Alex was more than his sister; she was his best friend. They were constant companions and would talk for hours, sharing secrets.
The suicide was something Vinson didn’t see coming.
“It was an all-of-a-sudden thing,” he said. “She didn’t show any signs — no depression. It was all of the sudden out of the blue.”
Her suicide hit Vinson hard. Depression set in, and he got help from a child psychiatrist. A dream helped the youngster come to grips with the event.
“For a minute I was scared, but I had one dream about her,” he said. “At the end of the dream I asked her: ‘Where are you about to go?’ She said: ‘I can’t tell you.’ ”
She didn’t have to. Vinson knew she was in a better place. But that help didn’t prepare him for what happened a few months later.
After Alex’s death, the light of his life was 6-month-old brother Omari. Vinson was going to make certain Omari became a stud athlete.
“He was on a big person’s bed,” Vinson said. “He rolled off the bed between the bed and the wall and died.”
It took some time before Vinson learned of his brother’s death.
“They didn’t really wanted to tell me,” he said, “because it had only been a couple of months since my sister had passed away.”
In a way, Vinson felt even worse after Omari’s death. Dealing with Alex’s death was one thing, but to lose Omari was overwhelming.
“I was really hurt because I always wanted a little brother,” he said. “He was my only brother. I always wanted somebody that I could say I brought up and help mentor.”
It was difficult for Vinson to open up to his psychiatrist about Omari. The grief was overwhelming. He did speak with was his younger sister, Ajanae, now 14, and she is the reason Vinson was able to hold himself together mentally.
“I knew I had to be stronger for my little sister,” he said. “She was already weak, so I couldn’t let her down. She was coming to me sometimes about it and I had to be strong. It used to be that I didn’t want to talk about it, but now I’m really open because I healed over time.”
Through the years, Vinson was able to cope with losing two siblings, but he also turned to football for help. He played for the West Seven Mile Rams in the Detroit Police Athletic League before enrolling at King.
He now admits he had an overinflated opinion of his skill level as he began his sophomore year and didn’t play in the opening game.
“I got dressed the first game, and I thought I was better than I was,” he said. “Obviously, the coach knew what was really going on. After the first game my dad asked me one question: ‘Do you like it here?’ I said, no.”
That led his father to look for a smaller environment, leading Vinson to River Rouge.
While he couldn’t play as a sophomore, it didn’t stop him from going to work in the weight room to prepare himself for his junior season.
“His body was very awkward — long, knock-kneed kind of guy,” Rouge coach Corey Parker said. “So we really had to help him develop in the weight room and help him change his body. He went through the whole gamut of things as far as speed training, powerlifting, the whole nine yards.”
But before he could get on the field again, Vinson had to survive another traumatic experience.
In late May of his sophomore year, he was in the car with his father, who stopped at a friend’s house in northwest Detroit, a few blocks from Vinson’s grandmother’s home.
Vinson’s father went to break up an altercation and the youngster stayed in the car.
“Someone shot into the air to stop the commotion,” the younger Vinson said. “One guy said they were going to come and shoot up the house. I was thinking, ‘I can’t just sit in this car because they might be here in no time.’ ”
Sure enough, someone did pull up and get out of a car with a gun. Vinson ducked so he couldn’t be seen, and when the guy with the gun went into a backyard, Vinson got out of the car and walked to his grandmother’s home.
A bit later, he heard a car horn repeatedly honking in front of the house. On his way home, Vinson’s father had driven down a street where some of the people who were arguing at a friend’s house mistook him for someone else — and opened fire.
When he heard the horn, Vinson walked out and saw his father’s car riddled with bullets, five of which had hit his father.
“That was crazy,” the youngster said. “There were almost 20 holes in the car. You could see bullets ripped through the dashboard. There were bullets in the passenger’s side of the car.”
As he inspected the bullet holes, Vinson understood what could have happened had he not walked home.
“Luckily, I got out of the car or it could have been me,” he said. “I was crying, but I knew my dad was strong. It was just the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The road to recovery for Vinson’s father was a lengthy but successful one, and Parker and his staff worried what would happen to the youngster in the meantime.
“When it happened, we just knew this is not going to turn out well,” Parker said. “But he’s freaking amazing … just a resilient kid. He has a great spirit. He keeps it good. He has a great relationship with his teammates, and he does it on the field.”
The right place and the right time has proven to be River Rouge, where Vinson is blossoming into a player and healing from the traumatic events of his past.
“Football is another outlet,” he said. “From where I’m from, there’s a lot of kids who like to smoke, drink and all of that — everything but the right thing they’re supposed to be into at this age.
“I’m not like them. I’ve got football.”
Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.