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Football in America: Chicago—Where Traditions Are Born, Revived and Obsessed Over

We visit a recently launched high school program, a university that once ruled the Big 10 but now is thriving in D-III, an adult flag league that’s all for fun, and, of course, the Bears, where the past is ever-present

Welcome to The MMQB’s eight-part series, “Football in America,” in partnership with State Farm. We’ll take the temperature of the game at various levels—youth, high school, college, the NFL and more—in a changing landscape for the sport, in eight locales across the United States. This week: Episode VI—Chicago.

Episode I: The Bay Area
Episode II: Carolina

Episode III: Minnesota
Episode IV: Dallas
Episode V: Arizona

Video: John DePetro

Amid Shrinking Public Programs, One Getting Started

Thursday, 3:45 p.m.
Winnemac Park, North Side

Alan Rood is the kind of coach who doesn’t let anything go. On the sideline he has just one volume level: loud. So when one of his Von Steuben High guards lets a defensive end get past on the inside for an easy lane to the ball carrier, Rood calls the player off the field to correct him immediately. “You have to come downhill!” he says. “If I go downhill, no one can get inside of me! I feel like you’re in P.E. right now and giving half your effort!” Five minutes later Rood walks back over to the same player to provide some more loud feedback on the same mistake. He hasn’t moved on.

“I don’t stop coaching ever,” he says after the game. “You’ve always got to coach, because you’re not helping us if you’re not doing the right things.”

Von Steuben vs. North Grand, Winnemac Stadium.

Von Steuben vs. North Grand, Winnemac Stadium.

This isn’t your typical high school football coaching gig. Rood started the Von Steuben program from scratch three years ago. For the first 87 years of its existence, Von Steuben, a magnet school on Chicago’s Northwest Side, did not have a football program. Within Chicago Public Schools, basketball is king, and declining football participation and limited resources make it much more common to see news of a football program shuttering rather than starting up. Fifteen of the CPS’s 96 varsity football programs cancelled their 2017 seasons, mainly because of low participation numbers, and a 16th program combined players with another school to save its season. Rood has built program from the ground up—the team now has 54 players—and posted winning seasons in each of its first two years. For a Chicago public school, that’s a remarkable feat.

At the start, Rood’s job more closely resembled a youth football coach. In the first season only two players out of some 50 who signed on had any experience playing organized football. “It was like coaching 8- and 9-year-olds,” he says. “As a football coach, getting guys just understanding plays—that was the hardest challenge.”

Chris Robles was a sophomore that first season, 2015. Before he joined the team his only experience with playing football was of the Madden variety. He loved the sport and dreamed of playing high school ball, but when he saw the promotional posters for the first football info meeting, he hesitated. “I was kind of nervous, to tell you the truth,” says Robles, now a senior defensive end/left tackle. “Should I actually do it? Because this isn’t Madden. I didn’t know what to do during football. I knew positions, like, oh that’s a quarterback, he’s going to throw the ball, but I didn’t know the actual game itself.”

As a first-generation American, senior quarterback Andres Ortiz also had a late introduction to football. His parents immigrated to Chicago from Ecuador in the ‘80s, and knew nothing about the American sport. “I always tried to push him as a little kid to play soccer, and it was strange, he didn’t like it,” says Roque Ortiz, Andres’ father. “Then all of a sudden when he was in middle school, he started to get interested in football, and he came home complaining, Oh, why you didn’t teach me football?”

Von Steuben coach Alan Rood (right) working the sideline.

Von Steuben coach Alan Rood (right) working the sideline.

Although he’s just 5’9” and 160 pounds, Ortiz knew he had a good arm, from playing some flag football at recess. He wrote down his position as quarterback at the very first meeting and has been the Panthers’ starter ever since.

Chicago’s magnet schools, which offer specialized subject areas, draw applicants from around the city, with admission based on lottery for those who meet the academic requirements. Von Steuben is known for its engineering program and its focus on math and science. Both Robles and Ortiz want to study mechanical engineering next year in college. They’re currently building a prototype of a new bike lock that functions like a station to park bikes.

The Illinois High School Sports Association eligibility rules state that a student must be passing five classes out of seven to play football. That doesn’t fly with Rood. “We hold them to a higher standard,” he says. “You can’t have an F on our team and play. You can’t have two Ds.”

Like the majority of CPS teams, Von Steuben doesn’t have its own facilities or field. The Panthers practice at nearby Northeastern Illinois University and play home games at Winnemac Stadium, a.k.a. Jorndt Field, a venerable old red-brick venue field that hosts up to five high schools games each week. (That’s actually a bit low for a Chicago public field, but Winnemac doesn’t have lights, and hence the early kickoff.) The playing field itself is uneven—there’s a noticeable hump running down the middle of the field from end zone to end zone,. The grass is pocked with holes and divots. “We have had bad snaps, because the ball has gotten stuck in a hole,” Rood says. At Hanson Stadium, where the team plays a few away games, the surface isn’t much better. “It’s the 1985 Bears AstroTurf, the carpet,” says Rood.

Thought this is just the team’s second varsity season, Rood is actively working to create traditions and rivalries for the players to rally around, such as The Kimball Cup, a helmet that serves as a trophy for the victor of the matchup with neighboring Roosevelt High.

In this afternoon’s game, against North Grand, the Panthers take a 16-6 lead into the half, on the strength of a strong run game and tight defense—Robles registering a safety in the first quarter when he burst through the North Grand line on a pitchout and tackled the runner deep in the end zone. Rather than retreat to the locker room, Von Steuben players remain on the sideline and turn to face the bleachers. It’s the last game of the season, and the seniors are being celebrated. Rood would have preferred a pregame ceremony, but with a 3:45 p.m. kickoff, few parents could have made it.

Von Steuben in formation.

Von Steuben in formation.

The seniors’ parents line up against the fence on the running track, holding red roses and handmade signs decorated with red and black paint and photos of their sons in Panthers uniforms. As the P.A. announcer calls out the name of each senior, along with his position and grade-point average, the crowd of maybe 100 cheers loudly. Coaches give each senior a giant bear hug after he walks through the gauntlet formed by cheerleaders.

Robles walks arm in arm with his mom, Iris Morales, to take their place in line with his 18 other classmates. Morales is a single mom, and she hasn’t missed any of her son’s games. Robles’ father is incarcerated, and has been for most of Chris’s life. “My father hasn’t really been there for me, and Coach Rood has kind of taken that mantle,” Robles says. “That male role model was never really there for me until Coach Rood took me under his wing. He taught me the ropes, and that gap in my heart kind of filled.”

“I am out of words for that,” his mother says, fighting back tears. “[Rood] has been great. He’s dedicated to the team, and I know that this requires a lot of commitment, and he showed them that.”

The 16 programs that either canceled or co-opted their teams represent nearly 20 percent of Chicago’s high school football teams, a drastic increase from the average of three a year that forfeit their seasons, according to CPS regional athletic director and football coordinator Jaton Jackson. As an alternative to 11-man tackle, Jackson quickly put together a pilot flag football league in September for the teams that dropped tackle. But by the eve of the first scheduled flag game, all of the schools had pulled out of the league, unable to field enough students even to participate in the 7-on-7 game. Jackson says he plans to explore 8-man football and combining struggling programs as possible solutions for next season.

Chris Robles, Von Steuben senior.

Chris Robles, Von Steuben senior.

Their senior duly celebrated, Von Steuben coasts through the second half and wins easily, 29-6, finishing the season 6-3. Because they play in the bottom tier of CPS conferences, they aren’t yet eligible for the state playoffs. For now, Ortiz will take pride in what he and his teammates have accomplished in three short years.  “Even if we weren’t going to finish this season 6-3, if we were going to finish 4-5, I still feel like we’d be winners, just because of what we created at this school,” he says.

Robles leads the post-victory “Panther Strong Like” chant, standing out in front of his fellow players as they crouch low to the ground in a call-and-response routine. Robles is a kid who was set free by football, and has soaked up every moment of his three years playing the game. He gets a pit in his stomach thinking about how close he came to never getting the chance. “To know that other schools are losing programs, it’s kind of scary knowing that this huge part of my life could have been gone and nonexistent,” Robles says. “I don’t know what I would do without football, honestly. I know other schools are losing it, I just can’t imagine what they might be going through.”

Beer Down, Chicago Beers

Friday, 6:30 p.m.
Lincoln Park Turf Field

“Can I get a beer for this huddle?”

It’s halftime of a co-ed 7-on-7 game pitting the Drunken Bears against the Sell-Side Stiff Arms, two teams in Chicago Sport Social Club’s flag football league. There’s no water cooler on the sideline, just a few cases of Bud Light. A few Sell-Side women drink white wine out of red solo cups.

Players crack open new cans and quickly discuss second-half strategy before the two referees hurry them back onto the turf field, just off Lake Shore Drive, with Chicago’s iconic skyline looming to the south. The 2-0 Stiff Arms, a group of young professionals, lead the 2-0 Drunken Bears, who self-identify as “Old Timers,” 24-6.

The Stiff Arms are mostly co-workers at the investment bank Lincoln International. They specialize in sell-side mergers and acquisitions, hence the team name. Captain Justin Barnes and his girlfriend, Caroline Curry, are the most experienced veterans, with five years under their belt.