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Suburban athletes show up for Let Us Play protest, but city turnout is small

The protest Saturday at the Thompson Center was designed to be a show of force and numbers to put pressure on Gov. J.B. Pritzker. It didn’t turn out that way.

Protestors hold up signs at the Let Us Play protest at the Thompson Center.
Protestors hold up signs at the Let Us Play protest at the Thompson Center.
Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

The Let Us Play protest Saturday at the Thompson Center was intended to be a show of force and numbers to put pressure on Gov. J.B. Pritzker to change his mind and allow all fall sports, especially football, to be played now instead of in the spring.

That isn’t how it turned out. An estimated 400 to 500 people showed up, the overwhelming majority wearing apparel from Lincoln-Way East, Loyola and Batavia.

There wasn’t a single Chicago school with a significant presence. Brother Rice football coach Brian Badke was on hand with three players, and there was a coach or two in attendance from about 10 Public League teams.

‘‘We did the best we could,’’ Badke said. ‘‘We had a pretty good turnout. There was the ACT today, and we had a lot of kids on college visits. In a short period of time, we were able to get a decent turnout.’’

Players from Hillcrest, Antioch, Glenbrook North, Maine South, New Trier, Vernon Hills, St. Charles North, St. Francis and Naperville Central made the trip, but the absences were more notable. A high school football protest in downtown Chicago that doesn’t feature a significant presence from Mount Carmel, Simeon, Phillips, Marist, St. Rita or any major city team clearly lacks juice.

‘‘Honestly, I was pretty surprised,’’ Perspectives football player Jaden Stewart said. ‘‘I really felt like I could have done more. Called my teammates, called other kids. Actions speak louder than words. If you really want a season, you would come out and show it.’’

Kenwood football player Myles Mooyoung not only showed up, he also was one of six high school students who stood on stage to speak to the crowd.

‘‘Anything that happens is on us,’’ Mooyoung said in his speech. ‘‘If I get COVID from playing football, I’m fine with that.’’

Kenwood football player Miles Mooyoung speaks at the Let Us Play protest at the Thompson Center.
Kenwood football player Miles Mooyoung speaks at the Let Us Play protest at the Thompson Center.
Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

Mooyoung was one of the softer-spoken speakers, but his message played well with the crowd.

‘‘I wasn’t nervous,’’ Mooyoung said. ‘‘I feel confident in whatever I do, but I’ve never spoken to a crowd that big before. I just spoke from the heart. I just felt like that is all I could do. And everybody loved it, so I guess it was a good showing.’’

St. Laurence volleyball player Ella Woltman was the standout speaker, attacking the politicians that have delayed her season.

‘‘We’ve been waiting for six months and been pushed around like lab rats for six months,’’ Woltman said. ‘‘We are done waiting. We the healthy have gone through Zoom practices. We the healthy have gone through e-learning. We the healthy have gone through absolute torture while waiting for answers from the people in charge. We know what you are doing is unfair. We know the risks of our own sports, so let the parents and athletes decide how risky our sports are.’’

Protesters gather together at the Let Us Play protest at the Thompson Center.
Protesters gather together at the Let Us Play protest at the Thompson Center.
Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

Social worker Adam Russo spoke about mental health.

‘‘I don’t know about you, but I am tired of hearing the word ‘safety,’ ’’ Russo said. ‘‘I’ve heard kids talk about the anxiety and depression of being cooped up in their basement. It is real, and we are seeing it. We are seeing a massive increase in the amount of anxiety in young people, and it is all about safety. Let’s keep safety in perspective.’’

Perspectives football coach Terry Jones, one of the organizers of the protest, was milling around with coaches from Curie, Longwood, Johnson and Westinghouse shortly after the crowd dispersed. He gave his take on why the city didn’t show up to demand high school football.

‘‘A lot of people don’t like to be out in front in these moments,’’ Jones said. ‘‘Not everyone is Muhammad Ali or LeBron James in these situations. Some people voice their opinions better then others.’’