Cinderella Chicago Football Team Heads to State, Aiming For Repeat

Phillips Football Practice
Paula Friedrich / WBEZ
Phillips Football Practice
Paula Friedrich / WBEZ

Cinderella Chicago Football Team Heads to State, Aiming For Repeat

A Chicago public high school is making a rare appearance in the state football championship game on Saturday.

Wendell Phillips Academy in the Bronzeville neighborhood made history in 2015 when it won a state football title. It was the first Chicago public school to win in the Illinois High School Association’s history.

At the time, it was considered a Cinderella story. This weekend, the team aims to prove the win was not a fluke.

You wouldn’t know Phillips is headed to the state championship by walking the hallways at the South Side school this week. Lockers are bare, there are no banners to cheer on the team and the school’s not holding a pep rally.

Blame the superstitious principal.

“We’re not jinxing anything until the game is played,” Principal Matthew Sullivan said. “They know they have a quirky principal. I’m not playing either. I’m dead serious.”

Outside Phillips this week, the 2015 title is featured prominently on the school’s marquee.

Phillips won the state title two years ago in the 4A category, which includes schools with an enrollment of about 700 students. This year, they petitioned to play in 5A, which is meant for schools that have an average student body of 1200. Head coach Troy McAllister says the team wanted the challenge.

“Anytime you raise the expectation, you say we’re going to go out to achieve something greater,” McAllister said. “It pushes them to something new, different and that’s a life lesson they need to take with them.”

The Wildcats face Dunlap, a high school in a small town near Peoria. The teams are well matched; both are undefeated.

But Phillips wasn’t always a force. For years, Phillips was a struggling CPS school. In 2010, the district contracted with the Academy for Urban School Leadership to turn it around. While Phillips is still rated by the school district as needing intensive support, its graduation rate increased over the last six years by more than 20 points to 63 percent.

Sullivan says the growth in academics and athletics have gone hand in hand.

“You could really start to feel that post secondary push for our young people,” Sullivan said of his students, 94 percent of whom are considered low income. “And now we’ve had three straight years with 100 percent of our seniors accepted to college.”

Phillips seniors earned $11 million in scholarships last year, up from $300,000 just four years earlier, he said.

The cheerleading team prepped this week for Saturday’s game. Cheerleading captain Danae Jones (second from right) said the excitement at school is spilling over into the surrounding Bronzeville neighborhood.

“Everywhere I go, even if I go to Walmart, they’re going to talk about it because they know I go to Phillips,” Danae said. “If I have on any Phillips gear, they go ‘you guys won. I seen you on TV.’ So it’s pretty exciting.”

Drumline practice took over a third floor hallway this week to get ready for Saturday’s game.

All season, the Wildcats faced competitors from larger schools with more resources. But 17-year-old running back Craig Elmore (above, kneeling) says that doesn’t bother the team.

“We don’t have the things that all the other schools have,” he said. “Coach Troy and the rest of the coaches teach us ‘don’t make excuses. Use what you have.’ And that keeps us humble.”

Craig and his teammates have practiced every day this week, including on Thanksgiving.

On their last evening practice on Tuesday, the boys walked the usual three-quarters of a mile from school to a shared community athletic field. They suited up on the sidelines in the chilly air. Some pulled out hand warmers and ski masks before they got to work.

Saturday’s game will be bittersweet for the team’s seniors.One of them, J’Bore Gibbs, is the team captain and quarterback. He earned a full-ride football scholarship to South Dakota State University, where he plans to study engineering. He knows no matter what happens on Saturday, it’s going to be emotional.

“I’m probably going to cry,” he said. “I almost cried the other day thinking it’s going to be our last night practice, and it’s just practice…. I’m very connected to these guys and the coaches and everything we stand for. So it’s going to be an emotional night.”

Three buses full of Wildcat fans will head out early Saturday morning to cheer on their team. The game kicks off at 10 am at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

Susie An is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.