Football team from "failing school" makes playoffs
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: 970L

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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 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. He is 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. As a freshman, one of the team's seniors was even shot in the ankle in a drive-by shooting.

The 600-student academy was deemed a "failing" school four years ago. That led city officials to fire and 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, like the lack of a home field, no sports 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. It means the Wildcats play a patchwork schedule instead of every Friday night like most schools.

"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 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. 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.

Upon returning to school, he feared rival gangs. Sometimes he 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.

"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?

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  • Buckeyes3
    12/08/2014 - 08:32 a.m.

    I love football first off, and I think that it is really inspiring for a team to go from the bottom to the top. The weird thing is that they were failing for 4 years! But when you think about it you need good grades to play a sport first off. I feel bad for the Jamal Brown because his dad died. It is really great for a team pulled apart to come back again.

  • rachel.12
    12/08/2014 - 08:32 a.m.

    Its sad that they don't have their own football field to practice and play games on. But they do go to other football field's to practice. I wonder how much practice they get if they don't have enough time to practice on that field that isn't theirs.?

  • MS2000TACOS
    12/08/2014 - 08:37 a.m.

    When Jamal Brown said "Football isn't as hard as our everyday lives" he means that life can be very difficult. He was a dropout and former gang member. He has some ups and downs. His life was extremely difficult. Now thanks to football he got his life back. He is in college on a football scholarship.

  • kr2001blue
    12/08/2014 - 08:39 a.m.

    I think he means that playing football isn't as hard as struggling to get a home and take care of yourself and find a way to get money. Life is harder than playing a sport. In a sport you can quit anytime but in life don't give up and don't quit on yourself.

  • AlarrahM.
    12/08/2014 - 08:49 a.m.

    I think Jamal brown means " football isn't as hard as our everyday lives " that if you lose a football game you can just brush that away and forget about but losing mom or dad maybe both thats something you can never forget about . In football the only thing thats hard is getting the ball from your opponents but the thing thats hard in everyday lives is being homeless , gangs , killings . Football is no where near a struggle as everyday lives.

  • TR2000football
    12/08/2014 - 09:09 a.m.

    The quote " football isn't as hard as our everyday lives". Some people struggle to stay alive. a lot of the student on the team go through a lot. Football isn't hard, Living life sometimes can be hard.

  • chrisr-Koc
    12/08/2014 - 10:33 a.m.

    He means that most of the kids have really hard lives and football isn't even close to anything that those kids have gone through.

  • annaw-Fit
    12/08/2014 - 12:06 p.m.

    In this story of change from gang to college, football team member Jamal Brown says " Football isn't as hard as our everyday lives." I think that he is trying to convey that football is hard but life is harder. He is a guy who has no family and is trying to keep life on track through this. It must be very hard for him. Therefore he is saying that his life is really hard but he will keep on going and pursue a good life. Football is the way for him to pursue a good life and so he is going for it.

  • bryanh719
    12/08/2014 - 12:11 p.m.

    a school that is the worst have accomplished a goal in football. They made it to the playoff which is hard to go to. It show that even people with the disadvantages can accomplished goal that is hard in life.

  • TE2001lego
    12/08/2014 - 01:00 p.m.

    If those boys keep failing school then why are the in the play offs? If they failed school they should never be playing football I bet their parents says they keep failing they will not play football in collage.

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