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Kofi Hughes used football to hide from his struggles. Now he shares his experience while training a new generation of athletes.

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Football didn’t save Kofi Hughes.

At his lowest point, no one else knew how dark things had gotten for Hughes, a star wide receiver at Indiana from 2010-13 who was good enough to be featured on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”

Hughes finished his college career with 132 receptions for 1,956 yards and 13 touchdowns in 45 games (31 starts). The Indianapolis native was the 19th Hoosier to reach 100 catches and 1,000 yards and was a team captain as a senior.

Inside, though, he was going through what he calls an identity crisis that started when he was younger.

“I’m biracial. My dad’s Black, my mom’s white,” Hughes told the Tribune. “And for me, sports was where it didn’t matter that I wasn’t Black or wasn’t white. Because being biracial is kind of interesting. Your white friends love to let you know that you’re not white, that you’re Black. And your Black friends, as much as they love you, love to just let you know your mom’s white. You’re one of us, but you’re kind of not.

“I was always conflicted about that because I felt like I didn’t have a real home. I felt like I didn’t have a sense of belonging in either race. Sports was the place where it didn’t matter. You ball, you ball, you know?”

Hughes doesn’t play football anymore. He had offseason and training camp stints with the Washington Redskins, Houston Texans and Chicago Bears in 2014, but they didn’t work out. He also doesn’t do drugs anymore. At all.

And he’s not the same person he once was. Hughes trains young men with college and pro football aspirations, sharing his experiences in hopes of making them better men.

“I won’t go to an IU alumni event anymore,” Hughes said. “It’s been like seven years and it’s because I’m like a guy that does not exist anymore. I’m just so far past it. It’s a kind of death.

“It is a little uncomfortable because I’m talking about someone that doesn’t exist, but it’s also a part of who I was. I’m talking about a kid that football meant everything to.”

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Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jayden Reed, left, and Simeon senior Mikeshun Beeler, a Michigan State signee, place three 45-pound weights on the back of Athletes They Fear founder Kofi Hughes as he does pushups on April 10, 2024, in Chicago. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)

Hughes, 32, met me in the West Loop building where he’s a licensed performance coach. Dressed in all-black sweats and wearing tortoise-shell glasses, he paused for a second and sighed deeply. It was one of those sighs where someone is releasing something heavy and all you can do is watch and wait to see what they’re going to say next.

“My football career was plagued by substance abuse issues,” he said. “I didn’t know. I didn’t know that was what I go to when I have negative emotions and I don’t know what to do with them — I smoke weed. I didn’t know that was always my response to having negative emotions.”

When Indiana hired Kevin Wilson as its new football coach in December 2010, he was expected to turn around a program that had languished at the bottom of the Big Ten. One of Wilson’s first acts, according to Hughes, was to drug test the entire team.

Hughes failed twice.

“First one in college football is a slap on the wrist, but your image is ruined,” he said of failed drug tests. “So there may not be repercussions in terms of a punishment, in terms of suspensions. But image-wise, oh, you’re a pothead.”

But Hughes didn’t stop. The “negative emotions” had gotten harder to run from, and he got high to cope. He got smarter about his drug use, switching to prescription drugs because it was easier to flush them out of his system in order to pass the team’s mandated drug tests. Hughes knew which days tests were administered and figured out a way to beat the system.

Football had become the place where Hughes was able to bury himself; where he attempted to hide from the uncomfortable feelings he experienced. He didn’t just run well on the field, he was running in real life.

During his junior and senior years of high school, football had propelled Hughes to new popularity and sated his hunger for a sense of belonging.

“I was just basking in that, just riding that but not ever using my platform,” he said. “Not ever understanding that I could do something with the attention. I could do something with the glory. I was just consuming it as if it was money. I’m spending it every day, buying as much as I can just to fill this void.”

The attention and winning still didn’t satisfy Hughes’ desire for an identity. As a teen, he spent so much time forming his identity around popularity and acceptance due to sports.

“I was a kid seeking validation, so I just flocked to whoever would take me,” he said.

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Athletes They Fear founder Kofi Hughes, left, puts Simeon players Mikeshun Beeler, right, and Chris Burgess Jr. through a workout on April 10, 2024, in Chicago. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)
Athletes They Fear founder Kofi Hughes, left, puts Simeon players Mikeshun Beeler, right, and Chris Burgess Jr. through a workout on April 10, 2024, in Chicago. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)

Hughes wakes up every day at 5 a.m. and begins a routine that includes praying, reading and working out. He’s no longer seeking who he is.

“That person doesn’t exist anymore,” he said confidently.

When he was looking for himself, Hughes found his faith and his purpose.

For his “day job,” Hughes trains people in and around corporate America. Through healthy habits and a workout plan, he helps them achieve not only their health goals, but also their professional ones.

But in his free time, Hughes works at his passion, a project he calls “Athletes They Fear” (ATF).

“The main goal of Athletes They Fear is to create good men,” said Hughes’ wife, Christina. “Kofi’s main focus most of the time is making sure that these young men, these boys, can tap into a side of them that’s beyond the athlete. A lot of times, especially in lower-income neighborhoods, these kids are made to believe that the only thing they have to offer is their athletic abilities and that’s what’s going to get them out and make them special and make them important.

“Kofi takes a whole different approach and says: ‘Hey, you are a person, you’re important, you’re loved, you’re valuable no matter what. And someday, no matter how good of an asset you are, you will be an ex-athlete and what do we do then? And how do we love ourselves through that?’”

ATF is a nonprofit “committed to the growth and development of the next generation of Chicago athletes.” Hughes, whose life on this side of football heavily involves his faith, said the name comes from Deuteronomy 11:25.

“In the verse it (says), ‘And I will lay the fear of you and the dread of you upon all the land, and every place that the soil your foot treads upon, I will give unto you,’” he explained. “Basically the fear was not that people are going to be afraid of Kofi Hughes or Malik Elzy or Jayden Reed but the reverence that people will have because of the God that they serve and the integrity and the character that they see in those men.

“It’s more about reflecting the love of God in every aspect of your life — but we’re also the dudes that you don’t want to play.”

Athletes They Fear founder Kofi Hughes, right, greets Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jayden Reed as Reed joins Hughes and student-athletes for a workout on April 10, 2024, in Chicago. Reed began training with Hughes in high school, and their friendship continues. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)
Athletes They Fear founder Kofi Hughes, right, greets Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jayden Reed as Reed joins Hughes and student-athletes for a workout on April 10, 2024, in Chicago. Reed began training with Hughes in high school, and their friendship continues. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)

Reed, a wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers, has been training with Hughes since 2016. The Naperville Central graduate met Hughes at a gym called FitSpeed in Aurora where Hughes trained high school athletes.

A second-round draft pick in 2023, Reed made his NFL debut last September against the Bears and finished his rookie season with 64 catches for 793 yards and eight touchdowns. He continues to train with Hughes and has become a mentor to some of the younger players who work out with ATF.

“He works with a lot of kids throughout the Chicagoland area, and all those guys motivate each other,” Reed said. “The guys that he’s worked with, you can obviously see they’ve had positive things going on in their lives; me being a prime example.

“He’s really become a brother to me and mentored me. He’s touched my heart heavy. My dad passed away (and) he’s been that guy to come in and make sure I’m staying on the right things, going on the right path. I just appreciate him for making sure that everybody keeps going and accomplishes their dreams.”

Illinois wide receiver Elzy also met Hughes when he was in high school at Simeon. The two felt such a strong bond, Hughes joined the Simeon coaching staff.

Staying in state and going to Illinois kept Elzy close to not only his parents, but also Hughes. The two still work out together, and Elzy said he stayed in touch with Hughes as he adjusted to life on campus and has learned from Hughes’ experiences.

“What I got from his story is you’ve got to take it day by day,” said Elzy, who played in nine games as a freshman last fall and had five catches for 52 yards and a touchdown. “There’s already a plan for you. You’ve just got to walk through faith. You’re going to have ups and downs but you’ve got to know you’re going to overcome them.

“Kofi inspires me. I didn’t go through as much as he went through, but I still faced adversity.”

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Athletes They Fear founder Kofi Hughes, left, and board member Eddie Sanders place 45-pound weights on the back of Simeon junior Chris Burgess Jr. as he does pushups on April 10, 2024, in Chicago. Burgess is a four-star recruit who's committed to Notre Dame. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)
Athletes They Fear founder Kofi Hughes, left, and board member Eddie Sanders place 45-pound weights on the back of Simeon junior Chris Burgess Jr. as he does pushups on April 10, 2024, in Chicago. Burgess is a four-star recruit who’s committed to Notre Dame. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)

As the group of athletes surrounding Hughes grows — along with their success — he connects them with professionals such as Eddie Sanders, an attorney and ATF board member who assists players with name, image and likeness representation, legal counsel and brand protection.

Sanders believes Hughes’ past aids his mission and makes him more relatable than many other coaches they encounter.

“There’s the human element behind him,” Sanders said. “It allows him to connect with these kids on a different level so they can see that struggle and see his determination. And they can relate to that because a lot of these kids are coming from tough situations.

“Sometimes these coaches can’t relate because their life path wasn’t similar to the students. They can get through to them on a physical level. They can get through to them on weight training and things of that nature. That’s more scientific. But when it comes to actually getting to know the person, sometimes you have to have gone through those situations.”

Through ATF, Hughes stays connected to football by using his experiences to make a positive impact on the next generation of athletes. ATF offers life-skills development, high-intensity training, career-path exposure and one-on-one mentorship. For players who may have a dream that involves something other than football, Hughes connects them with people in their chosen field.

Since 2015, Hughes said, 100 players he has trained and mentored have gone on to receive athletic or academic scholarships to Division I schools and 160 more to Division II and III programs.

“Always a phone call away,” as he says, Hughes travels to games to support players in person. Through helping these young men, he examines his own relationship with football and life after the sport.

“During this past football season, my wife looked at me and she was like, ‘Hey, you really love football, don’t you?’ And I started crying,” Hughes said. “This is one of my greatest loves because it’s such a great sport. And I’m so passionate about helping other football players and athletes understand football is not your life, and if you treat this thing right and you become successful in it, the principles are the same principles that apply to anything else you will do the rest of your life.

“A lot of us leave football not knowing that. You think that your life is over because football is over. No one tells you the whole time that you were excelling in this thing, those things can help you excel in life after it’s over.”

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