Football team from "failing school" makes playoffs Phillips Academy assistant coach Michael Larson left, poses with Phillips Academy player Jamal Brown, 19. Unlike other teams, the Wildcats must lug their helmets and pads to a city park to practice because they have no field of their own (AP photos)
Football team from "failing school" makes playoffs
Lexile

Unlike some resource-rich powerhouses that typically vie for Illinois' high school football championships, the Phillips Academy Wildcats must lug their helmets and pads nearly a mile to a South Side Chicago city park to practice. They have no field of their own.

A former gang member-turned-star safety, Jamal Brown, sleeps at the assistant coach's house because he and six other teammates fit the school system's technical definition of homeless because they don't live with either parent.

The city's first all-black high school already made history by becoming 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, the 19-year-old former dropout and gang member who is 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 South Side neighborhoods, including some that are plagued by gang violence and senseless killings. 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, leading city officials to fire and replace much of its staff. It also has produced standouts, including Gwendolyn Brooks, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, and 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, like the lack of a home field, no equipment like blocking sleds and the mile-and-a-half round-trip to practice every afternoon. It's one of many public schools that must share a home stadium in another part of the city, meaning the Wildcats play a patchwork schedule instead of every Friday night like most schools across Illinois.

"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, when it crushed a far better outfitted team from 3,000-student high school in Naperville, a suburb west of Chicago. The score was 40-7.

But the biggest challenges for the Wildcats are the ones some have faced individually. Seven don't live with parents or legal guardians, hence the homeless designation. 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.

Brown has faced longer odds than most. His father died of a heart attack before he was born. He only sporadically sees his mother, who is in prison. When he was 6, he saw his grandfather strike and kill his grandmother. After the death of a beloved family friend he was living with, he dropped out of school as a sophomore and started hanging with a gang.

After a year of that, he says he felt compelled to get his life back on track.

"I didn't want to get locked up and accomplish nothing," he said. "I didn't want my legacy to be Jamal the gang member."

Upon returning to school, he feared rival gangs and sometimes wouldn't leave the apartment in his housing complex because of gunfire. So, he gladly accepted assistant coach Michael Larson's invitation to come live with him on the comparatively well-off North Side.

"It's nice to see him not having to watch his back anymore," Larson said.

Today, Brown commutes to school by subway. He and quarterback Dewayne Collins both recently committed to play football at Illinois State University.

Critical thinking challenge: What does Jamal Brown mean by, Football isn't as hard as our everyday lives?

Assigned 16 times


COMMENTS (22)
  • RM00charlie
    12/08/2014 - 01:03 p.m.

    what he means is that there school lives and home lives compared to playing football are hard for them to work with. He feels playing football is like a break through for him to do something he knows he can do easily.

  • DD2001green
    12/09/2014 - 08:41 a.m.

    Jamal means that football is easy for him. But life for him is hard because he doesn't live with his parents and his parents are poor.

  • tyresel-Orv
    12/09/2014 - 11:25 p.m.

    Don't get me wrong im happy for the boy but what is really messed up is that they were in gangs and dropped out and they are still able to play. If I were to slip in school one time im off the team in a quick sec.

  • MikaylaStazewski-Ste
    12/10/2014 - 12:22 p.m.

    The title of this article says a lot about the school. To me, it really is a shame when schools focus more on the sports than the academics.

  • romanj-Orv
    12/11/2014 - 01:53 p.m.

    I agree with Tyrese.. it is good that they are out of gangs and playing something that they love. but they dropped out of school. wouldn't there be a consequence for dropping out?

  • 3SaraS
    12/11/2014 - 07:40 p.m.

    Lessons to take away from this article.
    Something that you can take away from this article is that you may never know your outcome. Meaning if your in a bad state and want to get out of it, but you don't think you can, you never know unless you actually try too. You may think of this article as clich but I think it's like a miracle and shows that the impossible can happen. Its show that even if your not the luckiest or smartest person out there you can still make a goal and achieve it, you can come from the poorest side of town and graduate at a high priced college. Whatever you work for is what you'll get at the end. The biggest lesson I got out of this article is what you put in is what you get out, you get the ending you worked for, not what you think you deserve. The students from the football team probably didn't even image going to college, but they worked hard and ended up getting a scholarship for what they loved doing. (football)

  • dallass-Koc
    12/12/2014 - 08:39 p.m.

    For starters that is true commitment to the game of football. Many kids now a days complain about just not wanting to go to practice let alone walk a mile to practice. I think it's also very nice that the coach let Jamal stay with him in his home.

  • evanb-Orv
    12/15/2014 - 04:38 p.m.

    Its means your daily lives is harder than playing a sport at school because in some cases they look like they are happy at school but maybe sad or frustrated at home with family members.

  • TreyvaunT
    12/16/2014 - 01:56 p.m.

    That was an expiring story to read. They never gave up, and worked hard to get where they were. If you have enough determination, then you can do anything you want, and nothing can stop you.

  • BColton-Sti
    12/18/2014 - 09:38 a.m.

    These football players went from dropping out of school and joining gangs to being an all star football team. The team knew it was for real early in the season, when it crushed a far better outfitted team from 3,000-student high school in Naperville, a suburb west of Chicago. The score was 40-7. I feel that if you set a goal and you try to reach it you can just like these boys did. They were in gangs and didn't want to be recognized as the kid that is in a gang so they cleaned there act up and now some of them are going to college.

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