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Kingston man has impact coaching football at an inner city school in Chicago

February 27, 2014

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

When a boy from small town, white-bread Joyceville, Ont., transplants himself not only in Chicago but, as Jim Croce wrote, in the baddest part of town, you might suspect there’d be a day or two at the beginning of his adventure when he’d collapse at the end of the day and think, ‘Holy Crap!’

As it turns out, there were.

“Every day,” Troy McAllister says. “That first football season? Every single day.”

Welcome, Troy, to the Phillips Academy.

It’s not exactly the kind of place McAllister envisioned spending his career when he was at La Salle Secondary School or Queen’s University, playing football and then coaching with the Golden Gaels, but sometimes when desperation meets desperation interesting opportunities are created.

Phillips was a prestigious school when it was built in 1904, school to the children of the wealthy residents of Chicago’s south side. As the neighbourhood’s demographics changed, so did the school, which came to be populated primarily by African-Americans. It remained a cornerstone of the community, though; among its alumni are Gwendolyn Brooks, the first black American to win the Pulitzer Prize, and singers Sam Cooke and Nat King Cole. Abe Saperstein found the original members of what became the Harlem Globetrotters at Phillips.

Those ghosts surely became restless at what the academy had become early in the 21st century. Drugs, crime and gangs were crippling it. Barely three per cent of its students were meeting Illinois’ state academic standards. After two-thirds of its students dropped out in 2010, the house was cleaned. Everyone, from the principal to the custodians and kitchen helpers, was fired. An entire teaching staff had to be replaced.

Not far away, McAllister, the Canadian ex-pat, was teaching at a school called Dunbar. After Queen’s he’d completed his masters in Buffalo, N.Y., where he found the Chicago gig on a job board. Once he got there he began to look for a place where he could coach football, but he soon discovered that when it comes to football in the U.S., the hiring line is drawn somewhere near the 49th parallel.

“Being a Canadian, and even having coached at Queen’s, I didn’t garner much respect within the local football community,” McAllister said. “I was an assistant coach at Dunbar for a year … and when the position at Phillips came available, I put my name in.”

He did so even though, McAllister said, it was generally regarded as one of the worst schools in America.

“I knew I had to start somewhere,” he said. “Essentially I got the job at Phillips because nobody else wanted it.”

At McAllister’s first practice, 12 players showed up. Three years later, the school’s football team went three rounds deep into the Illinois state playoffs, farther than any Phillips team had ever gone, and McAllister was being widely hailed for his work with the team and the young men who comprise it. In December, his team was the subject of an Underdogs feature in Sports Illustrated.

“I knew if I got my foot in the door I would be successful,” McAllister said. “I would work hard enough putting in place what I experienced at Queen’s and I knew I would be successful.”

McAllister quickly determined that, confident though he may be of eventual success, it wouldn’t come easily. “Many of the young men in our program come from broken homes, single-parent families that have very little money,” he said. “The issues they face daily have caused many of them to be skeptical and not trusting of people, especially men.”

As a result, McAllister discovered that traditional methods, tried and true in other settings, simply would not work at Phillips. Ultimatums, for instance, meant nothing.

“How can you tell a young man that he won’t be on the team when (his) instinct is to quit when things get difficult? They wanted to feel like they were in control, because they had no control over anything in their life whatsoever.”

The most delicate part of that, he said, was convincing them that it’s better to try and fail than it is to quit when failure seems imminent. That was not an easy lesson to impart on a team that barely got a dozen players out to practice in the early days.

“You realize you’re scared because you don’t know,” he said. “Am I going to have enough kids to even run a full offence? That’s not a scrimmage, 11 on 11. Am I going to have 11 kids so I can teach something?

“It’s very frustrating because you want to provide structure within a practice and you practice plan and you script everything you’re going to do, and you show up at practice expecting 24 kids and you have 11. That was a big turnoff. Luckily I have a good group of coaches and if they see me down they’re jumping in to bring me up.”

McAllister wouldn’t give up. He’d call mothers, fathers, grandparents, browbeating his would-be athletes. Why weren’t you at practice? “The first couple of years, I think (they started coming) because they didn’t want to listen to us anymore,” he said. Eventually, leaders emerged. “Now it’s more peer-based,” he said. “They’re pushing on each other to be at practice, and make sure they’re on time and going to school, taking care of their grades.”

McAllister recalled his first few weeks at Phillips as challenging. A school uniform was instituted, where there had been none. Rules were implemented, where there had been few. It was a big adjustment. Instead of zero structure, there was zero tolerance. “The first month quite a few students did transfer out of the building because they didn’t like the new setup,” he said, “but as time progressed and the culture changed, we actually started getting more and more students transfer in.

“A lot of parents realized it was a safe zone and … now wanted their sons and daughters to come to the school.” Three of the assistants on McAllister’s coaching staff transferred their sons to play there. “To me, that says a lot about where the school and our football program has come.”

At a fundraising banquet for the Queen’s football team this month, McAllister spoke of the commitment necessary to reach the kind of students who attend Phillips. A coach, he said, is also a social worker, a psychologist and even a father. His cell phone is on around the clock and at the gala event in Toronto, McAllister was exchanging texts with a player who had crossed his mother. She wanted to punish the boy by not letting him come to football training for a week. “I have to call her when I get in tonight and have a nice, long discussion about that,” he told the gathering.

Then there was the night he got a distress call from a player who had been shot while waiting for a bus. The boy was anxious, but not because he’d been shot.

“When he called me from the hospital he was so worried that I would be disappointed or angry with him,” McAllister recalled. “I was dumbfounded. I told him his safety and health were what was important. I’ll never forget his reaction. He told me he was afraid that we would think he was gang-banging and we wouldn’t let him play football anymore.

“Growing up in Canada in a small town like Joyceville, sports are really important but they’re not the be-all. You know that’s not your only way to be successful in life. Education is so valued. It was expected that I was graduating high school, you’re going to go to college, graduate college, do post-graduate work. Neither one of my parents went to college but for my brother and I, they instilled that. That was the expectation they had.

“The young men we have in our program, we tend to focus on some of the negative things but there are a lot of positive families, positive kids who have the expectation of going to college but for that young man in particular, playing high school football is what he wants to do. He tells me all the time, ‘Coach, I hate school. The only reason I come to school is to play football,’ but I don’t care. He’s coming to school. He’s in class. He’s getting his education and he’s going to graduate high school. That, to me, is the big accomplishment. If it has to be football to get him there, that’s fine, as long as you get him there.”

Since the scholastic football season starts two weeks before class, the football team has played a significant role not only in the lives of certain students, but in the renaissance of the entire school. “We really do set the tone for the school year,” McAllister said.

“Our principal, Mr. Horton, and I have conversations all the time (about how) the success of the school and the success of the football program go hand in hand. If we come out and we’re successful and hard working, that translates into the school.”

Phillips, a school built to accommodate 2,000, has 650 students and 75 of them are involved with the football team. “That’s a good chunk of the school,” McAllister said, “and there are a lot of young men with issues, and if you can get them on board with football and translate that into school, there’s a domino effect. Other students start to buy in.”

It’s the buy-in that most satisfies McAllister. All eight of his seniors are on track to graduate in June and two of them have signed letters of intent to receive full scholarships to play football in college.

He harkened to the examples set by coaches Berk Brean at La Salle and Pat Sheahan at Queen’s. Modeling what he learned from them, what McAllister calls the family approach — “we didn’t have to worry about failing because there was always someone there to pick you up” —  has enabled him to effect positive change in an otherwise negative situation.

“You don’t realize until you are in the situation the impact you have as a coach on a young man’s life,” he said. “I had a lot of struggles here but just seeing the kids, the young men, develop… we are now starting to see the results and success from our hard work.”

McAllister, 35, has lived in Chicago for eight years now. “This is where I am now, where I plan to be,” he said. He’d love one day to get an opportunity to get back into coaching at the college level, but he understands the stereotype he would have to overcome as a Canadian coach is akin to the challenge a Canadian quarterback faces trying to be accepted by a U.S.-bred CFL coach: Daunting.

“I’m quite happy where I am and the program we’re in,” he said. “We have high expectations for next year and now we’re just trying to keep everyone on track so we can meet those expectations.”

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One Comment
  1. Rick and Muriel Revelle permalink

    Claude, this is your book! Do it!

    Rick Revelle

    _____

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