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Harper’s run coming to an end after 108 years

Football team playing final season before school closes.

Harper’s Yeshua Jessup (1) holds off a Bogan defender.
Harper’s Yeshua Jessup (1) holds off a Bogan defender.
Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

Maris Carroll remembers when Harper football coaches would pull their cars up to the Ogden Park practice field and turn on the headlights so workouts could continue past dusk.

That was when longtime coach Terry Lewis was in charge “with his old-school ways,” Carroll said one day last week. “Repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition. We stayed all night.”

It’s different now for the Carroll and the Cardinals, who are in the twilight of their run as one of the Public League’s most stable and successful programs.

Harper is the last survivor of four Englewood high schools targeted for closure two years ago by Chicago Public Schools officials. Citing declining enrollment and poor academic performance, CPS announced plans to close the schools and replace them with the new Englewood STEM high school that opened this month on the former site of the demolished Robeson High School.

After pushback from the community and the Chicago Teachers Union, CPS backtracked and allowed three of the four schools to be phased out, allowing current students to graduate. Two of the schools, Hope and TEAM Englewood, wound up closing early anyway.

But Harper’s doors remain open, and Carroll and his team play on, determined to go out on their own terms.

Harper coach Maris Carroll.
Harper coach Maris Carroll.
Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

According to Carroll, who also is the school’s attendance officer and athletic director, Harper is down to 49 students in a building that has accommodated as many as 1,400.

Its football team has 16 players. Twelve are Harper students and four are from nearby Chicago Richards, which is rebuilding its own program after last playing a varsity schedule in 2016.

Harper has had only two head coaches in the last 45 years. Lewis ran the program from 1974 till his retirement in 2006, going 236-94 in 33 seasons with 17 trips to the IHSA playoffs. Carroll, who graduated from Harper in 1981, came back as an assistant five years later and took over as head coach in 2007. He’s 72-53 in 12-plus seasons with seven more state playoff berths.

Since the school’s impending closing was announced, it’s been one hurdle after another for Carroll and his players to overcome.

The first question was, would there be enough players to allow the program to continue? Thanks to senior quarterback Travon O’Neal and others like him, there are

“I decided to stay because I felt like this was home, this was my family,” O’Neal said. “And once I became a part of Cardinal Nation, I was a Cardinal forever.

“And then with the school closing down, I thought should I leave? But then I thought about coach Carroll and his legacy. So I was saying, ‘No, I’m staying.’”

The Cardinals hoped to add to that legacy by competing for one more state postseason berth last season, Based on their top-four finish in the Chicago Great Lakes section in 2017, they expected to be promoted to one of the Illini sections eligible for the IHSA playoffs last year.

But by the time the school received a reprieve and Carroll made it clear the football program would continue, the upper-level schedules were done and Harper was shut out. So the Cardinals wound up in the Intra-City 1, finishing 7-1 and second to Crane.

“That really hurt the heart of everybody on the football team,” senior lineman Fred Shed said of the relegation to the Intra-City.

O’Neal agreed.

“That was kind of irritating to me,” O’Neal said. “Because I feel we earned (the chance) to be in there, so why would we not? And then I started to think about it. They dropped us out of the Illini because we were on the news about the school closing down. ... That was kind of petty.”

Harper’s Travon O’Neal (3) looks for running room against Bogan.
Harper’s Travon O’Neal (3) looks for running room against Bogan.
Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

This fall, the Cardinals are 3-1 overall and 1-1 in the Chicago Michigan Avenue section for what will be their final season. Though Harper will be open next school year with one final senior class, there won’t be enough players to field a football team of their own. So the roles will flip with Richards taking over the co-op program.

None of that is on the minds of this year’s Cardinals, who practice at Lindblom because renovations have made Ogden Park unavailable. And how do you practice with just 16 players?

“It’s hard,” Carroll said. “We just go against air. We can’t practice long because we try to preserve their legs. If we do the things we did back in the day, tackling and blocking and going against each other, they’d be worn out before Week 5.”

So now Mondays are just for watching film and no practice lasts past 5:30.

“It’s been trying,” Carroll said. “I never thought we’d make it to this point. I never envisioned we’d get down to 49 kids and close.”

Carroll figured Robeson, with a larger footprint than Harper, might be targeted for closure and redevelopment. But he figured Harper, as the only general enrollment high school west of Ashland Avenue, would be spared.

But then more and more charter schools came to Englewood and surrounding neighborhoods, drawing away students and sealing Harper’s fate.

The decision to close the school bothered junior running back/linebacker Yeshua Jessup.

”It was hurtful to close a school with a great legacy, that so many people who have gone through to be successful,” he said. “To shut that down is a shame. That basically means, ‘We don’t care about y’all.’”

Harper’s low numbers have ironically worked out in favor of the reinforcements from Richards like senior tight end/defensive end Henry Stokes. He’s been waiting to play varsity football his entire high school career and finally got the chance do so when he joined the Cardinals for their swan song.

“They opened their arms to us and it feels like we’ve been playing ball with them for all four years,” Stokes said.

And it feels like Harper, which opened in 1911, has been playing football forever. But the end is in sight.

“It’s bittersweet, because I played under coach Lewis,” Carroll said. “I saw it built from the ground up. Now I see it, (I’m) the last guy, I shut the door.”