OVER THE 20 years he coached football at East St. Louis Senior
High, Bob Shannon developed a brief yet arresting tour of the
athletic facilities at the school, which belongs to one of the
most impoverished cities in the U.S. Shannon would begin at the
practice field, a rutted lot behind the pale redbrick school
building, where he used weed killer to burn in yard lines
because the school district never had enough money to hire a
maintenance crew. The grass grew so high that once the lot was
used as a dumping ground for a bullet-riddled corpse, which a
few students discovered early one morning.
Continuing the tour, Shannon would pull out a huge key chain and
open the heavy steel door that leads to the football locker
room. Or is it an abandoned cellar? The room, dark because of
broken lightbulbs, smells of sweat and rot. The rusting,
battered lockers (some from a meatpacking plant that closed
decades ago) gape like open wounds. The floor is filthy and
covered with pools of water, though the showers are
bone-dry--they haven't worked in more than 12 years.
The next stop would be Shannon's office, actually a storage room
that he shared with a couple of rats. Then there would be a
swing through the weight room, which often had no heat, forcing
football players to lift in their coats on cold days.
Usually, Shannon finished his tour with a look at the school's
ancient gym, which was closed when this school year began
because it was contaminated with asbestos. For a few weeks
physical education classes had to be switched to the cafeteria,
where students would sit around for an hour doing nothing and
feeling victimized by one of the worst-run school systems in the
The 50-year-old Shannon--whose handsome features, powerful build
and sonic-boom voice made him a towering presence around the
school--would conduct his tour to illustrate a moral parable: how
a group of young black athletes from a desolate city, a place
where a quarter of the adult population is unemployed and two
thirds of the total population is on public aid, could attain
stunning success on the gridiron. From 1976 through the second
game of the '95 season, Shannon's teams were 194-35, winning six
Illinois state titles and two national championships and, over
one span, an astonishing 44 games in a row.
"But football here has never been just about winning," Shannon
says, stretching out his arms and vowels like a revivalist
preacher. "It's been a road out for these kids." He offers a sly
smile. "Some people protest by wearing Malcolm X T-shirts. I
protest by taking undisciplined guys from the streets and
turning them into focused, proud men." Shannon has helped more
than 100 players escape East St. Louis through college
scholarships, and two alums of East Side (as the high school is
popularly known) are now playing in the pros: Bryan Cox with the
Miami Dolphins and Dana Howard with the St. Louis Rams.
These days, however, Shannon is no longer conducting his tour or
helping young athletes escape the city. Having chafed for years
under a school district that is now being investigated for
financial mismanagement and corruption, and having been
repeatedly denied sufficient money for his football program,
Shannon announced last spring that he wanted to become East
Side's athletic director, so he could control the athletic
department's funds. The man who held that job, Arthur May,
angrily refused to give it up and threatened to have Shannon
fired. Then Shannon began following the money trail in the
department and accused May of lying to the school district when
requesting funds for the football team's meals on a road trip.
According to Shannon, May told him to mind his own business.
"Now that made me mad," Shannon says, his eyes widening, his
hands clenching into fists. "I'm from Mississippi. I take my
right to protest seriously. And this is a protest--against a
system that doesn't care if money is missing, if the kids don't
have the right shoes or a safe place to practice. That's not
what high school sports is supposed to be about."
And so, on Sept. 2, Shannon announced that he would give up the
job that had brought national glory to East Side and to him. He
was tired of fighting unsuccessfully for funds, and he felt that
because of his conflict with May, his presence was doing the
football team more harm than good. East St. Louis mayor Gordon
Bush, among many others, urged Shannon to reconsider, but while
Shannon was thinking it over, the school board hastily convened
a special meeting and voted 6-0 to accept his resignation. (The
board usually decides on rehiring coaches in November.) One
board member accused Shannon of airing "dirty linens" in public.
"As much as I love coaching football, they thought I'd never be
able to walk away," says Shannon, who still teaches phys ed at
East Side. "So what stronger statement could I have made but to
He is out by the football field now, watching his former players
practice on a clear, crisp late-September day. But the truth is,
he looks uneasy in his new role, standing on the sideline in his
street clothes while his old assistant coach puts the team
through its paces. The players look a little out of sync too,
some of them casting furtive glances at Shannon, that imposing
figure who drilled them so fiercely that they could hear his
voice in their sleep, and who became like a father to many of
them. One player, on his way to the blocking sled, detours past
Shannon and says shyly, "Thanks, man. You taught me a lot," to
which Shannon nods his own thanks. And then Shannon is alone
again, trying to figure out if this is it, if he has coached his
last game of high school football in the city that once honored
him as a beacon of hope amid so much despair.
"It's difficult to wean myself of this," he says, squinting in
the afternoon sun. "I've been doing this a long, long time."
East St. Louis has been called America's Soweto. Its population
is 99% black. The city, which lies in the Illinois floodplain
just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, is a flat,
forsaken sprawl of charred wooden shacks, boarded-up strip
malls, and liquor stores guarded by iron bars.
In the 1980s East St. Louis ran out of money to collect trash,
and the city's garbage--up to 40,000 tons of it--piled high in
backyards until people got fed up and set it on fire. Today,
though garbage pickup has resumed, you can see where sparks from
trash fires caught and burned down people's homes. You can see
where raw sewage from the town's crumbling waste system backed
up and flooded streets and playgrounds.
The city's school system has been similarly ravaged. Faced with
a $10 million deficit a few years ago, the district laid off
almost 100 teachers. Some classes ballooned to 50 pupils and had
to be held in gyms; in a few cases, because of the shortage of
teachers, classes had to be supervised by students or by
janitors. School supplies are rare to nonexistent. Textbooks are
often missing whole chapters. Science labs are 30 years behind
the times. In one East St. Louis school, volunteers used to walk
the hallways with whistles because the fire alarms didn't work.
Several schools have been closed periodically because sewage
overflowed into their buildings. In Savage Inequalities,
Jonathan Kozol's searing indictment of the country's poorest
school districts, the author quotes one East Side student as
saying: "Go and look into a toilet here if you would like to
know what life is like for students in this city."
East St. Louis was in better shape 24 years ago, when Shannon
arrived looking for work as a high school football coach. He and
his wife, Jeanette, decided to stay, and Bob took an assistant's
job at Lincoln High. Then, in 1976, he became head coach at East
From the beginning Shannon was out to teach something more than
football. He himself had used athletics to transcend an
impoverished childhood. One of 11 children of a sawmill worker
and a domestic in Natchez, Miss., Shannon spent much of his
youth living in a mill-owned shantytown so decrepit that he
could look through cracks in the floorboards and see chickens
under his house. As a teenager he had a variety of jobs such as
harvesting pecans and picking cotton. When he found work
delivering furniture to the richer homes in town, he saw what
money could buy--plush carpeting, a warm hearth--and vowed to get
that for himself.
And he did, largely through football. Although he knew no one
who had gone to college, Shannon decided he would go. With the
help of his two high school football coaches, he used his
limited physical gifts and his abundant appetite for work to
earn an athletic scholarship to Tennessee State, where he played
quarterback and--after a break from school to attend the
Washington Redskins' training camp under coach Vince
Lombardi--earned a degree in education. That, in turn, led to his
employment in East St. Louis.
Taking over the football team at East Side, Shannon saw a
familiar look of yearning on his players' faces as they stared
out the bus window on the way to games in more prosperous towns.
He saw their shame when other teams, arriving at East Side for
day games--night games were banned as unsafe--looked around the
neighborhood and asked the refs if they could play without a
halftime break in order to go home earlier.
"I didn't let our players get discouraged," Shannon says. "We
just worked that much harder, took pride in showing the world
that kids from East St. Louis could learn and achieve, just like
those suburban kids." Indeed, you can walk through the
grandstands at an East Side football game today, and men who
were coached by Shannon years ago will tell you how he changed
their lives, how playing on his football squad was the best
lesson they ever got in how to succeed.
"He had a dramatic effect on everybody who came through his
program," says Cox, who played for Shannon from '83 to '85. "He
is one of the most honest people I've ever met. Sometimes he
would be too honest, and it could hurt your feelings. But that
honesty was what helped a lot of people in his program go on and
In 1992 President-elect Clinton named Shannon one of 53 Faces of
Hope. The coach was profiled on television's 60 Minutes. He was
even the subject of a book, The Right Kind of Heroes, by Kevin
Horrigan, although Shannon has yet to read it. "I've always
tried not to get too high or low about all of this," he says.
"I've just tried to keep my shoulder to the wheel."
In fact Shannon displayed an almost Zenlike focus in his
work--whether he was fighting assumptions that a black team with
a black coach could win only through sheer physical prowess (for
this reason he taught his players a precision passing offense);
or persuading kids that education, not drug dealing, would
liberate them from their poverty (when practice was over,
Shannon made sure every player could get home safely); or
convincing local businessmen to donate equipment to the East
Side football team (the Flyers played through part of their
famous winning streak in uniforms that were nine years old). He
was never deterred by the challenges of coaching in an
inner-city school. If an obstacle course was too expensive, for
example, Shannon would improvise with a dozen 2-by-12's thrown
helter-skelter on the ground.
What Shannon could not abide, however, was that while he was
forced to beg for money for his program, school officials could
not account for millions of dollars in missing funds. Rumors had
been circulating for years that the East St. Louis school system
was corrupt, and in the fall of 1994 the state of Illinois began
monitoring the school district's finances, as it had those of
East St. Louis's city government several years earlier.
What state investigators found was a bureaucracy in appalling
disarray: The school district's financial records could not
account for an astonishing $10 million. The local
superintendent had approved $10,000 in retroactive salary
payments to her sister without school board approval. The
district had also paid health insurance premiums for former
employees and, in some cases, dead former employees. More than
$27,000 had been lost in late-payment penalties on monthly
utility bills. And the district was losing substantial income by
investing $9 million at 1.9% at local banks.
The initial audits were so damning that the state appointed a
special oversight committee to seize control of the district's
cash accounts last July. The school board and the superintendent
cooperated with the committee only reluctantly. In fact, when
the committee's auditors caught accounting errors that would
have cost the district $50,000, board members blasted the
auditors for embarrassing them in public. At one point someone
in the superintendent's office flouted the state by cashing
checks from a special emergency account and using the funds to
buy things like balloons. No one in an official capacity rushed
to help the committee determine exactly where that $10 million
Then, in August, Shannon took his football team to Simeon High
School in Chicago for its first game of the '95 season.
Shannon had long questioned the athletic department's use of its
funds. The state of Illinois provides the East St. Louis school
district with $58 million a year--80% of the district's budget.
And yet Shannon couldn't offer his players a hot shower after
practice. "Where is all that money going?" he asks. "For 12
years I've been trying to look at my football budget. But
they"--the school board and East Side's officials--"always refuse
to show it to me."
As the Flyers prepared to go to Chicago in August, May told
Shannon that the team would eat four meals during the trip.
Unbeknownst to his boss, Shannon looked at the paperwork and
discovered that May had requested funds to cover six meals.
Shannon confronted May and was rebuffed.
After the trip Shannon was summoned to East Side principal
Walter Hood's office, where May explained that he had
requisitioned money for more meals than the team actually ate
because the official food allowance was "too skimpy" to cover
the cost of decent meals. Shannon still considered May's action
to be the sort of discrepancy that has long plagued the school
district. Shannon agonized over the matter, worrying that if he
didn't go public, he would play into the district's decades-old
conspiracy of silence.
"No one ever says enough's enough," Shannon says. "No one ever
takes a stand." Finally he dropped a dime and called the state
Richard Mark, head of the committee, was thrilled to find
Shannon on the line. For months, as the committee had tried to
clean up the district's finances, Mark had been getting little
but obstruction from the school board. Then Shannon, the figure
with the highest profile in the city, broke that silence. Word
spread of his allegations, and suddenly Mark's committee
received dozens of anonymous tips about possible corruption in
the district--tips serious enough for Mark to turn them over to
the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office in East St. Louis.
"It seems like people were just waiting for someone to stand
up," Mark says.
But Shannon paid a price for taking a stand. Not only did the
school board jump at the chance to close out his 20-year
coaching career, but other pressures were also brought to bear
on Shannon and his supporters. May approached Clarence
Goldthree, then East Side's volleyball coach and a friend of
Shannon's, and accused him of leaking financial information to
Shannon. Social studies teacher Irl Solomon, who announces the
Flyers' football games, was told by Hood not to refer to the
school stadium over the P.A. system as "the house that Bob
Shannon built," which was sparking cheers from pro-Shannon
crowds. And basketball coach Dwight Howard was told to start
looking for a new assistant to replace Ray Coleman, who was
making and distributing I SUPPORT BOB SHANNON T-shirts.
And if there was any question about who, in the end, would pay
the highest price for the school board's action, consider this:
When Shannon went by the practice field recently and volunteered
to help his old quarterback Lawaun Powell with his passing
mechanics, Hood instructed the Flyers' new head coach, Edmund
Jones, to kick Shannon off the field. "You tell me," Shannon
says. "Who does that hurt?"
On a Saturday afternoon in late September, the Flyers take the
field in a home game against Granite City. They go into the
contest 1-3. Many in the crowd are wearing the I SUPPORT BOB
SHANNON T-shirts. And although none of the fans likes to think
that the East St. Louis school system is failing its children,
few doubt that it is. "I've never known Bob Shannon to lie about
anything," says a Flyer's stepfather who played for Shannon 15
years ago. "If he says it's happening, then it's happening."
"We've been hearing for years that money's been missing," says
one of the East Side cheerleaders as her squadmates nod
adamantly by her side. "It's the same-ol' same-ol'. People in
high authority around here have their pick, and what do we get?
"The way I look at it," says Cox from Miami, "when Bob Shannon
tells you something, his word is his bond. The city does not
know how much it will miss his presence. It's a great loss. You
don't just go out and replace a guy like that."
Shannon knows he has opened a Pandora's box of old resentments,
but he thinks that's the only way to accomplish change, to get
rid of the old guard and, he hopes, bring in the new. And if a
majority of school board members are replaced in the Nov. 7
election, Shannon predicts he will be asked back to East Side.
"Two other districts have called me in the last week [with
coaching offers]," he says after he and his wife have celebrated
the Flyers' 36-22 win over Granite City with a quiet dinner at
home. "But I'd go back to East Side if they changed the way they
Still, Shannon admits that he grew weary of the constant
battles--for equipment, for financial support--that he had to
fight at East Side. East St. Louis, after all, is a city so poor
that once it was directed by a court to cede ownership of its
city hall in order to pay a lawsuit judgment. The companies that
own local chemical plants have cleverly incorporated their own
towns and pay no taxes to the city. One of the few infusions of
cash, in fact, is for public education, and, therefore, as
Solomon says, "grabbing a piece of that pie becomes an exercise
in economic survival."
Shannon has given 24 years of his life to making sure his
players have options besides hanging out beneath the Colt 45
billboards along East St. Louis's main drag.
And, as Mark puts it, "If Bob is successful in changing the
system, this will mean more to the kids of East St. Louis than
winning any football championship, because it will change the
future of education here for years."
But one senses that Shannon would gladly give up his position as
East St. Louis's conscience in order to be, once again, just a
football coach. In his years at East Side, Shannon had an .858
winning percentage--one of the highest in Illinois high school
"After all we've done in the past, the things we still have to
tolerate in order to succeed ...," Shannon says, shaking his
head. Then he mentions that he still has a copy of a 1988 SI
article about Valdosta, Ga., a town where high school football
was so important that the team suited up 108 boys for home games.
"Boy," Shannon says wistfully, "I'd love to coach in a place
where people support you like that."
Darcy Frey is the author of "The Last Shot: City Streets,
East St. Louis, 99% black, has been called America's Soweto.