When a high school with limited resources excels in the classroom and in sports, people take notice, people in high places and even people with super star status.
Bronzeville's Wendell Phillips Academy was shut down in 2010 for poor academic performance. It reopened with an entirely new staff. Seven years later, 100 percent of the high school seniors were accepted to college. Students last year received $12.5 million in scholarship money.
But there's more. They play a mean game of football.
Getting knocked down on the field these days sparks both excitement and fear. Some schools are now taking the hit. One of them is North Shore Country Day in Winnetka. After almost 100 years, the football program there was scrapped. The Park District of Highland Park cancelled its tackle program for young kids. In both cases, there was low registration. Now comes word that this fall, CPS has lost 11 football teams since last season. The reason? A decline in student interest which is consistent with national trends.
But at Wendell Phillips Academy, the head varsity coach says safety remains a priority. And his team continues to grow.
Back when the high school got a complete overhaul in 2010, just 12 players took to the practice field. Seven years later, over 100 suit up to play including the new freshman team.
There is one problem.
“With our growth in the football program we got to the point where we needed equipment,” coach Troy McAllister said.
On August 24, Riddell, the maker of state of the art football equipment, invited Phillips players to its headquarters in Des Plaines for a tour of the place and presented a gift: New SpeedFlex helmets and shoulder pads fit for a winning team.
There they watched a video from former star quarter back Peyton Manning who couldn't be there to give the gift himself. At least that's what the video said.
"They put a video on of Peyton speaking to the young men. Really generic. ‘Hey you guys, good luck this week,’ I was like, ‘This is pretty bad, he doesn't even say ‘Phillips,’” Coach McAllister said.
But then the team turned around to look at the equipment and Manning himself appeared.
For an hour, former Indianapolis Colt and football icon talked and took picture after picture with the impressionable group. They may be ranked fourth in the state, but Manning made them feel like No. 1 that day. He took time with the players, who are also students, proving success begins in the classroom.
“In 2010, Phillips was academically the second worst school in the state of Illinois,” Matthew Sullivan, school principal, said.
Last year, 82 seniors got $11 million in scholarships. While attendance was 80 percent or better in back to back years. Tough love from the football coach and the staff making a difference.
“Regardless of what backgrounds these kids come from, there are no excuses made,” Sullivan said.
The team practices "smarter football," an initiative within the industry to reduce risk to players on the field. Riddel practiced some goodwill along the way and donated SpeedFlex helmets, which retail for $400 each. They were now free for the Phillips varsity team as they make another run for the state title. The helmets have sensors that alert the coach of a big and potentially bad hit to a players head. You can even inflate it for a snug fit it. And the new pads are all courtesy of Riddell. And Peyton Manning, of course.
The team has been wearing their new equipment for two weeks now and they love it and players are still on Cloud Nine after meeting Manning.