Phillips Academy a shining light during dark times in Chicago

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It has been an especially tough month in a city with a long history of tough months.

On Nov. 2, a 9-year-old boy was shot to death in an Auburn Gresham alley, reportedly as an act of retribution against his father. Five days later, a 14-year-old boy whose family had left Chicago to escape the violence was gunned down in Gage Park, mere weeks after the family had moved back to town.

And some time this week, the city will release video of a Chicago police officer shooting a 17-year-old boy 16 times in Archer Heights.

All of those neighborhoods are on the South Side, but if you’re looking for a shaft of light in this truly dark November, so, too, is Bronzeville, home of Phillips Academy, which is trying to become the first Chicago Public League team to win a state championship in football.

If the undefeated Wildcats beat Belleville Althoff in Friday’s 4A final, it won’t lessen the pain of any of the tragedies that have hit the city. No feel-good sports story can or should. But it will shine a light on a bunch of kids who are facing some of the same challenges that faced 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee and 14-year-old J-Quantae Riles.

“It’s a great feeling because no one ever looks at Chicago outside of the violence,’’ said Chris Elmore, a junior fullback and nose tackle. “So for us to bring a state trophy back, that’ll probably take some of the focus off the violence. People will see that Chicago is raising young men into grown men.’’

A team of teenagers shouldn’t have to carry such a heavy responsibility, and it might have been too much for last year’s team, which lost 49-28 to Rochester in the state championship game. This year’s group knows all about the violence that is devastating parts of Chicago but refuses to be weighed down by it.

“You going to sit there and cry over spilled milk or you going to get another glass?’’ said defensive lineman/tight end Amir Watts, a senior who has scholarship offers from more than 25 Division I schools.

Phillips has had a huge turnaround since 2010, when Chicago Public Schools brought in the Academy for Urban School Leadership to manage the place. That meant a new administration, new teachers and new coaches. And that meant lots of obstacles at the first practice of the summer.

“We had 12 kids show up,’’ athletic director John Byrne said. “We had no football. We had no ball of any kind in the building. The building had been basically stripped. No uniforms. No anything. A lot of kids had transferred. So we really did start from scratch.’’

Head coach Troy McAllister asked for commitment. If you don’t show up for school, you don’t play. If you get into trouble, you don’t play. If your grades slip, you don’t play. The kids looked at those firm demands and embraced them.

And in the same way the high school of Nat King Cole and Gwendolyn Brooks began rising up, so did the football team. A feeder program started producing players for the school. Talented players from around the city decided Phillips might be a good fit.

“Everybody used to think of us as a joke,’’ Watts said. “Phillips? Nobody wanted to watch Phillips.’’

“Until everybody finally woke up,’’ junior running back Kamari Mosby said.

Two years ago, the Wildcats made it to the state quarterfinals, despite limited resources. Being disciplined, as it turns out, is cool.

“When I talk to the boys, I tell them it’s easy to play Madden and smoke weed everyday,’’ McAllister said. “It’s hard to come to school, to have to get up at 5:30 a.m. just to get on the train, then to go through class all day, then to go to football practice for two hours, then to go home and do homework. That’s hard.’’

Byrne and McAllister had to learn that there were some things they couldn’t control. Some of the kids have to travel through dangerous neighborhoods to get to and from school. Some are homeless.

“I’m always checking to see if we lost a kid or we have a kid in trouble or there’s a problem,’’ Byrne said. “I’m an old guy reading police blotters in the paper. That’s not good. But that’s the world we live in here, and that’s the world we’ve chosen.’’

It’s a fun, unpredictable world too. From nothing to two straight trips to the state championship game.

“This whole thing is …’’ Byrne laughed, unable to find the word.

Crazy? Inspiring? Miraculous?

All that. And maybe more.


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