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First week of football practice is 24/7 for West Side team

The setup in Raby's gym for the football team's annual lock-in. Michael O'Brien/For the Sun-Times.

Following Chicago’s most violent weekend this year with 74 people shot, 12 fatally, Raby coach D’Angelo Dereef held his annual team lock-in as part of the team’s first week of football practice.

“As everybody knows, we’re right here in the heart of Garfield Park,” Dereef said. “It is known for a lot of violence, a lot of shootings and a lot of children getting killed.”

Dereef started the lock-in four years ago. He wanted to take his kids away to camp, similar to what he had experienced growing up as a high school football player in South Carolina. Dereef says the experience of going away is invaluable because it allows the players to dream outside of Chicago, outside of the the West Side.

Video by Annie Costabile

Going out of town isn’t in Raby’s budget so Dereef decided to bring the camp to his kids.

It started as a three-day experience and is now an entire week. After getting permission from their guardians, the team walked into Raby on the morning of the first practice of the season. They turned over their phones and set up camp.

The gym turned into the sleeping quarters and the air mattresses were separated by teams.

“We’re all separated into categories that will help us in the long run,” senior linebacker Byron Puryear said. “There’s team pride, team enthusiasm, team process, team power, team effort and team knuckleheads.”

This is home for Raby’s football team during the first week of practice. | Michael O’Brien/Sun-Times
This is home for Raby’s football team during the first week of practice. | Michael O’Brien/Sun-Times

Dereef’s idea is to surround players who need to focus on effort, for example, by other teammates who will push them to be better.

Senior cornerback Dontay Givens described the football practice “lock-in” as a wonderland away from all of the gun violence plaguing Chicago.

“They are coming from single parent households and parents dealing with substance abuse issues,” Rick Jackson, Raby team mentor, said. “They go to bed hungry a lot. While they’re here we feed them, we take care of them and we protect them from everything outside.”

For Raby players it is football practice during the day, team building at night. | Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times.
For Raby players it is football practice during the day, team building at night. | Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times.

Days begin with breakfast followed by a morning practice. The Raby coaching staff walks their team to the practice field located a mile away at Garfield Park. After the morning practice the team refuels with lunch.

Lunch is followed up with an afternoon nap. On the second floor of Raby you’ll find them in their sleeping quarters doing everything but sleeping. This is the time they spend bonding and sharing stories.

On Friday, the final day of camp, each member of the team will share a detailed story about their life. It ranges from struggles experienced at home to the loss of loved ones. There will be laughter and tears. Dereef says they’ll be bonded for life.

Raby’s Marshawn Foster in practice. Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times.
Most teams go home after football practice but Raby players are spending the night at school for a week to bond with their teammates. | Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times.

“I’m going to walk away knowing that after I leave this I’ll know that the people I’m playing next to are willing to die for me,” Givens said.

Dereef hopes he’ll eventually be able to take his team outside the city limits for preseason camp. It will take funding from Chicago Public Schools and the community, but he’s optimistic it will happen.

“It’s important,” Dereef said. “Some of them have only been as far as Six Flags. Others haven’t even been outside of the city. They need to experience life outside of Chicago so they can see they can make it out there.”

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