In Chicago, football ‘can’t be the antidote.’ But a high school coach and a program try to hold on in a city ravaged by senseless crime
CHICAGO — They called him Superstar. Of Kawanda and Everett Henderson’s three children, their middle son—Everett Jr.—was always the athlete. Kareem, the oldest, was a fine high school football player while Eric, the youngest, would rather play with computers than put on pads. But Everett was the kid people in the neighborhood talked about. In middle-school football he would zigzag through defenses stocked with boys twice his size. “Our living room is pretty much filled with Everett’s trophies,” Kawanda says.
So by high school, even as a 5'5" running back, it was no surprise when Superstar lived up to his nickname. Henderson was 90 percent of the offense for Chicago Vocational High School. Over his first three games he averaged more than 100 rushing yards and tallied seven touchdowns. He drew interest from Northern Illinois and Western Michigan.
CVS won its first two games by a combined score of 106-0, but the third didn’t go well. Facing Rich East (Park Forest, Ill.), a school in the suburbs, on Sept. 10, quarterback Quentin Coleman suffered a concussion, and two linemen were injured. CVS lost 43-14. That night Henderson was supposed to meet up with teammates to watch another high school game, Simeon vs. Phillips, under the lights.
Henderson stopped at home, on the 10900 block of South Eberhart Street, for a shower. He was on his way out when a friend stopped by with a girlfriend. He didn’t invite them inside—he didn’t know the girl, and his father and 14-year-old Eric were home—so they stood on the porch.
There were 59 murders in Chicago this September. There were 300 shooting incidents, and 358 shooting victims. More than 6,500 guns were seized. “When you grow up where we do,” says Coleman, the quarterback, “you probably know someone who has been shot at.”
The skies were darkening when a gray sedan rolled up. A man got out and approached the steps. “Wait, do you know that guy?” Henderson’s friend asked. He didn’t have time to respond. He dropped his phone and ran. The man pulled out a gun. He shot the 17-year-old six times; bullets hit his right hand, his backside and his abdomen. Another bullet lodged inches from his heart. Everett Henderson Sr. rushed outside when he heard the familiar echoes, this time chillingly close. He found his son sprawled on the lawn and dialed 9-1-1. The shooter darted back to his car and drove away.
Henderson underwent five and a half hours of surgery at Christ Medical Center. By the time he emerged from the operating room at 12:30 a.m., doctors had cut two inches off his small intestine and reconstructed his bowel. He had a chipped tailbone. He returned to school two weeks later in a wheelchair, and a few days later only needed a cane. But his body was not fit for football; doctors said he could not take a hit in the stomach. He would miss the rest of the season. Eight weeks later there is still numbness in his left leg and his backside. Police have not made an arrest or released any other information on the shooting. The investigation is ongoing.
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Larry Williams played football at CVS in the late 1990s. He took over as coach of his alma mater five years ago knowing football couldn’t be the antidote to violence. “But it can be a positive distraction from it,” he says. Williams fights the good fight against gangs and underfunding, but cruelty still penetrates his program. Several times during his tenure, practices have included only a handful of players because the bulk of the team is attending a funeral. The homecoming assembly was canceled because of a fight at the school, and the homecoming game was forfeited (details were not disclosed, but administrators felt there was a threat of violence). “Sometimes it feels like the streets are winning the battle that coaches used to win,” Williams says.
No Chicago school has more city championships than Chicago Vocational’s 11. CVS opened in 1941, a sprawling brick campus nestled on the South Side, next to what is now the Chicago Skyway. After Pearl Harbor, the Navy occupied the school as a training base—the east end of the building was an airstrip—and when the school was reopened two years later, students came en masse. During the 1950s, CVS typically had more than 5,000 students. Under legendary coach Bernie O’Brien, football was king. Dick Butkus is among the stars the school has produced. The award-winning band was once deemed by Mayor Richard Daley as “The Pride of Southside.”
But the Cavaliers haven’t won a public league championship since their three-peat from 1974 to ’76. The team remained competitive though the ’90s, but the dynamic, like so much on Chicago’s South Side, has changed. Charter schools sprouted across the city, plucking students from CVS. “And a lot of kids who might have gone to CVS started going to private schools,” says Andre Morgan, a longtime football coach and teacher regarded as the team’s de-facto historian. Enrollment dropped to 2,500 in 2000; this year there are only 961 students. Williams estimates that 99 percent of the student body is black, and 95 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.
“Football was once the pride of Chicago,” Williams says. “Now my biggest obstacle is just getting kids out here. Getting them to show up. There’s a lot of deterrents for black kids in the inner city not to get involved with sports. But once they’re here, we have a chance.”
When Williams attended CVS, the school bustled. “Outside of college, it was the best four years of my life,” he says. The food was better; in the cafeteria someone would crack an egg right in front of you. The bell rung, Williams says, and zero students mulled the halls. Football payers had near-perfect attendance. There was a pool in the courtyard; during summer ball, coach sometimes called practice and shouted, “Pool time!” The team grilled hot dogs and cannonballed into the cool water. “We just had fun,” Williams says.
The pool has been dry for the last decade. The team’s practice field is an unlined, overgrown knoll across the street. “I’m convinced one of the biggest deterrents for why black kids don’t play football in the inner city is because the facilities aren’t good,” Williams says. “All it takes is a little money. Give them a place to hang out, and they will hang out there. Make school somewhere they want to be.”
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The bus is late. It’s 5:30 on a Saturday evening in early October, and the driver should have arrived a half hour ago. The CVS players are gathered on the school’s lawn. Their game kicks off at 7:30, they haven’t played in two weeks (the previous week was the canceled homecoming game), and they’re starting to get antsy.
Coleman, the quarterback, has been up since 8. “I almost couldn’t sleep last night,” he says. “I kept visualizing the game, and my eyes wouldn’t shut.” He went to the barber shop for a game-day cut, took a nap, then grabbed the bag he packed the night before—cleats, undershirt, lucky white tube socks—and hopped on a CTA bus: one transfer and 47 total stops. Because Chicago schools have an open enrollment program, the players are sprawled across the city. Jacques Taylor, a senior offensive and defensive lineman, has an hour commute. Desmond Turner’s mom, Lisa, drops him off and sometimes crams nine players in her sedan for carpools home.
The team arrived at the school at 3. They retrieved uniforms in the basement and got taped up by trainers in the hallways, leaning against cold metal lockers. They did a walk-through in the gymnasium, then marched through the metal detectors they walk through every school day. The bus was supposed to be there. Now the skies are darkening, and Coleman has had enough. He pulls a ball out of the equipment bag and asks his center and a wide receiver to practice snaps right there on the corner of 87th and Clyde.
Two teenagers walk by. “What y’all still doing at school, losers,” one shouts, a few feet over Coleman’s right shoulder. The quarterback pauses, but doesn’t turn. “Hey,” Coleman says to his teammate. “Just hit me with one more.” He tosses a tight spiral halfway down the block. The bus finally arrives a shade before 6.
This game against King High is significant. The Cavaliers are 2-5. If they lose tonight, they’ll be dropped from Chicago’s top division next season for the first time ever. “We can’t be remembered as the team that messed that up,” says Taylor. But this year, more than any year, there are mitigating circumstances.
Williams often tells his players: Good things don’t happen after dark. But growing up on Chicago’s South Side, you know that.
“There’s always been violence,” says Glenn Johnson, the offensive coordinator who has coached in Chicago since 1971. “What has changed, is now they’re shooting women and kids. Anyone is a victim.”
CVS players try to stay together to stay out of trouble. They’ll go to Oak Lawn Buffet, giggling in the parking lot when they’re kicked out for eating too much food. They’ll hang out in Turner’s basement. They’ll sit on their couches and stream college football on their phones. “On weekends,” Coleman says. “I usually don’t travel outside unless I’m with my mother.”
On the night Henderson was shot, players didn’t want to be pent up inside. After they lost to Park Forest, the bus ride back to school to drop off equipment was silent. A few seniors organized a trip to see rival high school Simeon play Phillips under the lights. They were supposed to meet up around 7.
Defensive back Andre Montgomery was going to go with Henderson. Montgomery was running late. He called Henderson, but his teammate didn’t pick up. He called again. No answer. Montgomery went without him.
“They said Everett was waiting on his porch when it happened, and I felt like he was waiting on me,” Montgomery says. “I know I’m not supposed to say that, but I can’t help it. Coach Larry always talks about how we’re brothers.”
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Williams wants to provide for the players, but it’s hard when his budget is nonexistent. A local bar owner who is friends with Williams donates uniforms and gear. Each week, Williams stocks up on wholesale cases of Gatorade and sells them in the cafeteria. He uses the money to purchase bus cards for his players; he gives some money to Lisa Turner so she can cook pasta dinners when Desmond’s teammates come over; he pools most of the money for spring bus trips to take the juniors on tours of historically black colleges in the South.
“Coach Larry probably doesn’t want to be selling Gatorade at lunch,” Montgomery says. “But he does it because he cares about us. He’s like a father.”
Every assistant coach on CVS’s staff has a college degree. “These kids need to know,” says Williams, who went to Knoxville College in Tennessee. “It’s not the norm they know, but that can be a norm for a black man. It should be the norm.”
Williams gives a variation of the same speech every practice: Get out of Chicago. Go to college. Stay in college. Stay focused. Raise your family, no matter what.
The path might seem clear, but it’s not easy. One of the first fans to show up at Saturday’s game is Emanuel Wright. His 6'3", 275-pound frame is bundled in a sweatshirt as he waits for the team to arrive. Wright was a senior on last year’s team and was recruited to play defensive end at Mississippi Valley, a school he visited on Williams’ bus trip. He didn’t get his financial aid paperwork in by deadline, so football season arrived and Wright could not enroll.
This fall he is staying at his grandmother’s house in Chicago. In the mornings he wakes up and does 100 pushups. He sometimes accompanies his grandmother or her friends on errands. At night he does more pushups. All the while, he waits to receive the email notifying him that his aid has been approved for spring semester. “Watching my friends play is hard because I want to play so bad,” Wright says. “But the games are the best part of my week.”
There is no band, there are no cheerleaders. It is King’s homecoming game, so they have a slight home-field advantage, but there are at least 30 fans in the Gately Stadium bleachers cheering on CVS. (This is a good turnout, the coaches assure.) Twenty miles to the north, Wrigley Field is hosting Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. Early in the first quarter, the public address announcer provides a baseball update—1-0 Cubs, after one inning—and punctuates the announcement with: “It could be just as exciting a game as this!”
The offense had morphed dramatically in Henderson’s absence. Coleman, who sat out three games with a concussion, is now being leaned on as a passer. But CVS is rusty. They fumble the opening kickoff. They fumble their next possession. By halftime, they’re trailing 13-8.
Led by Coleman, the team plods to the visiting locker room—a shed behind the end zone with cement walls, cement floors and flickering lights. Williams bursts in a minute later. “Absolutely un-f---ing-believable!” he shouts. The teenagers are sprawled on the floor. “Do you f---ing want to win? What the f--- are you doing? Take care of the f---ing football! F---!”
The veins in his neck are bulging. He stands in the middle of the room and huffs as he pauses. Then, he begins in the corner of the room where Coleman sits closest to the door. “Do you want to play like a f---ing man?” he yells, staring the quarterback in the eyes. Williams moves over to the next teammate. “You’re not playing like a f---ing man!” To the next player. “You’re not playing like a f---ing man! You’re not playing like a f---ing man!”
None of the players say anything. “Hey, someone go check how much time is left in the half!” Williams orders.
A player pokes his head out the door, then reports there are 11 minutes remaining. “F---! I forgot it was their homecoming,” Williams says. “Well, I have nothing left to say.”
He pulls a metal chair by the showers and buries his head into his hands. The players stare at him, but remain silent.
The long halftime ends. CVS scores 22 unanswered points in the second half and wins 30-13.
* * *
The Cavaliers’ final game was on Oct. 20, held at Lane Tech, a college prep school on the North Side with a campus of manicured lawns and stately brick buildings. It was a Thursday night, and during the first half there were exactly four CVS fans in the stands: Desmond Turner’s mom, Lisa; Wright, the alumnus, and a friend; and Bil Hayes, a councilman from Rochelle, Ill., who serves as a mentor to a handful of the boys.
For the first time since the beginning of the season, CVS looks sharp from the start. “You got this, boys!” Lisa Turner cheers from the first row of the bleachers. “Finish what you started!” The Cavaliers roll to a 58-22 win. Williams pumps his fist and swarms Coleman with a hug before they walk the handshake line. CVS fell one game short of the playoffs; the forfeited homecoming game could have been that one victory.
Henderson’s recovery is going remarkably well, his mother reports. Doctors have OK’d him for light jogging, and even lifting. He should be cleared by basketball season and still has a chance to play football in college next year.
For now, he’s working on college applications. He wrote a personal statement, and read a draft to Kawanda last week. It was about getting shot, but also about how football made him a man. It made his mother cry.
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