LAST WINTER A high school defensive coordinator in Chicago gave one of his players a most unusual assignment. "Your job," Michael Larson told Jamal Brown, "is to stay alive for the next six months."
Jamal was terrified of leaving his apartment in the Parkway Gardens housing project, one of the most dangerous pieces of real estate in America. The only thing more prevalent there than violence is the fear of it. Jamal was scared to stand at the bus stop or walk to a store. Larson knew the feeling. He had served in the Army and, he says, "that's the way I felt in Iraq."
Larson wanted to take Jamal in, but he didn't have space. He was finishing up his lease on a one-bedroom apartment. So he told Jamal to stay alive, and by summer they would move into a bigger place—together.
Jamal already knew how hard it can be to stay alive. He has not lived a childhood that most Americans imagine for their kids, of swing sets and birthday presents and pancakes on weekend mornings. Jamal's father died of a heart attack before he was born. His mom was a drug addict and is incarcerated. His grandmother raised him for a few years—until his grandfather killed her. Jamal watched him do it. He was six. Jamal moved from Detroit to Chicago, where a family friend named Ann McCoy raised him. She died when he was 15.
Jamal dropped out of school for a year and joined a gang. But after a while he decided, "I didn't want the world to say, He was just another gangbanger that never cared about life and never cared about anyone."
He didn't really want to be in a gang; he wanted to be on a team. He may have found the most amazing one in the United States.
Last Friday, Wendell Phillips Academy played in the Class 4A state championship in Champaign. Chicagoans call this "going downstate," but five years ago Phillips was really in a down state. Students shot dice in the hall. Stairwells were encased in cages. Twenty-seven percent of freshmen tested below a fourth-grade reading level. Chicago Public Schools designated Phillips a "turnaround school," which sounded more optimistic than realistic.
The whole staff was replaced, from principal to custodians. Finding a fresh supply of school spirit was not as simple. When head football coach Troy McAllister held his first practice, 12 students showed up.
Today Phillips is a model of discipline and structure, an oasis of success in Bronzeville, a neighborhood that needs some. It is one of only six neighborhood schools (out of 52) to achieve the highest academic ranking: Level 1. The football team rose from 2--7 in McAllister's first season to the state quarterfinals last year. Players looked forward to this season all spring; they had hope.
Phillips was the first Chicago public school in 32 years to play in a state championship game, which makes this story both inspiring and infuriating. How many public school teams, like the schools themselves, would thrive if they had proper facilities and suburban-level budgets, and more teachers like McAllister and Larson? Instead, students turn to the same place Jamal Brown once did.
"Gangs do sometimes provide structure," McAllister says. "A lot of our young men are craving discipline and structure, and they seek outlets for it."
Jamal Brown stayed alive, and last June he moved in with Larson and Larson's girlfriend, Charity Hoskins, on the city's North Side. Now Jamal can pick up breakfast at Dunkin' Donuts and bring it home, and, he says, "I don't have to look over my shoulder every five seconds just to make sure nobody is trying to shoot me." A senior safety, he is headed to Illinois State on a football scholarship, and while he dreams of the NFL, he would also like to coach football and teach history.
The state record book will say that Phillips's season ended with a 49--28 loss to Rochester in the title game. It was a loss, all right, but it wasn't the end. Every senior on the team is on track to graduate, and this season the Wendell Phillips football team did not lose a single player to the streets.
Jamal Brown didn't really want to be in a gang; he wanted to be on a team.
Learn more about the inspiring turnaround at Wendell Phillips Academy in a new episode of SI's video series Underdogs, premiering on Dec. 18. Go to SI.com/underdogs