Football team from "failing school" makes playoffs
The Phillips Academy Wildcats must lug their helmets and pads nearly a mile. They go to a South Side Chicago city park to practice. They have no football field of their own.
A former gang member-turned-star safety, Jamal Brown, sleeps at the assistant coach's house. He and six other teammates fit the school system's technical definition of homeless. That's because they don't live with either parent.
The city's first all-black high school already has made history. It became the first team from the embattled public school system to advance to the state finals in 32 years.
"Football isn't as hard as our everyday lives," said Brown. He is the 19-year-old former dropout and gang member. Now he's headed to college on a football scholarship. "You'll have to break our legs to make us stop coming."
The school has students from a range of violent South Side neighborhoods. One of the team's seniors was even shot in the ankle as a freshman in a drive-by shooting.
The 600-student academy was deemed a "failing" school four years ago. That led city officials to replace much of the school's staff. Today, 90 percent of its students go on to college, its website says.
The football coaches won't allow the Wildcats to dwell on disadvantages. It's one of many public schools that must share a home stadium in another part of the city.
"There are 100 reasons. But in the end they're excuses," head coach Troy McAllister said. "We don't want any excuses."
The team knew it was for real early in the season. It crushed a far better outfitted team from a 3,000-student high school in a suburb west of Chicago. The score was 40-7.
The biggest challenges for the Wildcats are the ones some have faced individually. Seven don't live with parents or legal guardians. But their teammates have rallied around them.
"We say to parents, 'You are going to send us a boy and we are going to send back a young man,'" McAllister said.