"You give me a kid who is 6 for 10 years, we've got him,'' Phelps said. "I don't want kids dead at 18 or 25. Grab these guys early and get them to stop killing each other.''
Phelps speaks from the heart but also experience. Under President George H.W. Bush, he headed Operation Weed and Seed, an initiative intended to assist America's most struggling urban areas. In New Orleans, Phelps recently helped restore troubled McDonough High into a culinary training center thanks to $35 million in federal funding. In Memphis, he raised funds and delivered the commencement address to the first class of students — all 51 are college-bound — at Soulsville Stax Music Academy Charter School in the city's poorest section.
Like at Notre Dame, not everybody appreciates Phelps' coaching style. South Bend councilman Henry Davis Jr. walked out of a meeting last May after accusing Phelps of grandstanding. At the same meeting, another councilman shouted at Phelps for interrupting him.
"Give me a technical,'' Phelps said. "I don't care about protocol if it stops kids getting shot.''
He cares about progress like the Kraft executive who offered to start a youth jobs program. Like his buddy from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives who has brought advanced gang-resistance training to South Bend schools. Like the local clergymen Phelps challenged to "preach it on Sunday and reach them on Monday,'' who have increased the pool of participants.
"It will not turn things around over night but Digger's program is a great start,'' South Bend councilman Derek Dieter said. "Nobody else in this town has stepped up like him. He could be playing golf. Or with his grandkids. I love the guy. He can be abrasive but that's the coach in him saying, 'Come on, let's go.' ''
One recent summer night, Phelps pulled up to a busy outdoor basketball court on campus. Old habits die hard.
"I said, 'Everybody up, team meeting,''' Phelps said.
Soon he was surrounded. In typical Phelps fashion, he challenged his captive audience to seek an education. To stay out of trouble. To "live the dream,'' Phelps said. He shared the story of Mavericks forward Bernard James, who finished his Florida State career at 27.
An athletic 24-year-old named Larry paid closer attention than the rest. Two weeks later, Phelps got word Larry had enrolled in vocational school with the goal of playing at a local junior college. He also received a text: "Hello, Mr. Phelps. Just want to keep you posted on the dream. I'm chasing.''
Six years after Phelps quit coaching, he ran into one of his role models — Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh. Of all the stories about a man who influenced popes, presidents and social change, one of Phelps' favorites involves the retired Notre Dame president challenging Jose Napoleon Duarte.
In 1960, Duarte was a successful civil engineer when Hesburgh urged him to delve into politics in his native El Salvador. The Notre Dame alum returned home, committed himself to bringing democracy to his country and in 1984 became its president.
"So Hesburgh asks me in '97, 'What are you doing?''' Phelps said. "I had a good gig at ESPN and started a mentoring program in town. And I'll never forget it. He said, 'That's it?'''
Phelps thought of Hesburgh's expectations seeing the headline last April that changed his summer. He thinks of Hesburgh, 95, every day he tries changing a world that could be pretty comfortable if Phelps just cared about his corner.
The two shared dinner two weeks ago at Phelps' favorite Italian restaurant.
"Father Hesburgh asked me what I was up to,'' Phelps said. "I said, 'You have me coaching the streets. I'm not Duarte but I'm getting there.' ''