Google Maps says it’s 33 miles from Kelvyn Park High School to Barrington High School, but try telling that to Justin Figueroa.
“It was like another world,” Figueroa, a Kelvyn Park football player, said of his recent trip to the northwest suburbs.
Figueroa went along with his coach, Kurt Cooney, to pick up some football equipment that Barrington coach Joe Sanchez arranged to donate to Kelvyn Park.
The Broncos gave Cooney and his players practice pants, hip pads, knee pads, thigh pads, even some football shoes that had been ordered but never worn for whatever reason.
It was a nice little “Pay It Forward” moment that in a small way narrowed the gap between the haves and have-nots in Illinois prep football. The seeds for this good deed were planted decades ago, when Cooney played at Wheeling and Sanchez was one of the kids in the stands.
“I looked up to him because he was a great athlete,” said Sanchez, who went through Wheeling a few years after Cooney. “I remember going to games and watching him. I remember seeing his picture on the wall and seeing old highlight reels.”
Cooney and Sanchez stayed in touch over the years. After a stint as an official, Cooney moved to the sidelines, becoming Kelvyn Park’s coach last year.
The Panthers weren’t in good shape.
“When I took over the program, I only had about 18 players,” Cooney said. “Every year they had lost equipment.
“This year, I got my numbers way up, I’ve got about 54 kids. Most of them are sophomores and freshmen, which is nice. But I didn’t have enough gear.”
How bad was it? Kelvyn Park players were wearing their game pants for practice and their game jerseys, too. If the Panthers had a road game, they wore their home jerseys for workouts; if they were at home, they wore the road jerseys.
Cooney knew if he was going to build a program, he had to be able to outfit his players properly. So he started fund-raising and the community around the Northwest Side school responded, donating $5,000.
That plugged some of the equipment gap, covering the cost of helmets and shoulder pads. For liability reasons, those couldn’t be donated.
But the Panthers needed all the other pieces of a full football uniform. So Cooney reached out via email to some of his contacts in the suburbs. The only coach who responded was Sanchez.
After checking with Barrington administrators to make sure they were OK with his plan — they were — Sanchez invited Cooney out to pick up some gear. The Kelvyn Park coach brought a few players along to help with the heavy lifting and to see what an established program looks like.
“Everything was organized, they had boxes of equipment,” Figueroa said. He appreciates Barrington’s generosity.
“It really inspires me to do [well],” Figueroa said. “It gives me a chance to go out and compete with other players. I am thankful for what they did.”
So is Cooney, who is determined to build Kelvyn Park’s program, one kid and one game at a time. The Panthers are 2-4 playing in the Inter-City 1 section, the lowest of three levels of Public League football.
Cooney wants to get Kelvyn Park up to one of the Chicago sections. And he wants his players to understand his prep football experience, one that so many suburban and parochial school kids take for granted.
So over the weekend, he took some of the Panthers to Wheeling’s homecoming to see what a high school football stadium full of people looks like.
Though their situations couldn’t be more different, Cooney and Sanchez are trying to do the same thing.
“Any coach of any sport, when you’re … blessed with the opportunity to be a head coach, you’re trying to lay a foundation and you’re trying to build something that everyone in your community can be proud of,” Sanchez said.
The Kelvyn Park community should be proud of what Cooney and his kids are doing in building up a team that had fallen on tough times. And the Barrington community should be proud of what Sanchez has done in giving the Panthers a helping hand.