You may remember the Harper High School episodes that ran on This American Life earlier this year.
They showed the impact of gun violence on the school and its staff and students.
WBEZ education reporter Linda Lutton worked on that project.
She spent much of last fall with Harper’s football team.
Now, she takes us to meet the team, and gives us a glimpse of what it was like to share their season.
Ambi: Stretch! One! Two ! Three! Four! (Sound down and under…) Five! Six! Seven! Eight! Nine! Ten! Eleven! Twelve! Thirteen! Fourteen! Fifteen!
It’s a Friday afternoon in late August at tiny Stagg Stadium on 74h and Morgan. The Harper Cardinals are lined up across the field. They’re dressed in their red game jerseys, red cleats, socks around their ankles ‘cause it’s hot.
Last fall, I spent pretty much the entire football season with the Harper Cardinals. I got to hear the locker room prayers…
COACH MIKE: …One thing I gotta say, Lord. Let us kick a little ass, in God’s name. Amen!
I rode the football bus to practices and games….
JIHARRA: The smell of it? Ugghh. Must! Sweat! Uuugghh!
And I saw almost all the touchdowns...
CROWD: Uh-oh, uh-oh! Turn up! Uh-oh! Yeah! Yeah! Let’s go, boy! Yeah!
ANNOUNCER: Touchdown, touchdown! Antoryio Barton!
Football is part of the quintessential American high school experience—and Harper is a classic American story, with a strong team, a dedicated coach.
There’s only one difference: Harper sits in a Chicago neighborhood where gun violence is completely re-shaping life. I was with this team because the year before, 29 current and former students from Harper High were shot, 8 of them killed.
But I was also here to capture everyday life in a high school living with that reality.
MALIK: My name is Malik Harris. I play center. God, family, and football—top three.
Malik’s middle name on Facebook is “NFL Material,” and like other players on this team, he intends to get there. Cornerback Sandelio Wright has his route to the pros completely planned out.
SANDELIO: Crimson Tide, Alabama. Number 7. Make it to the League, play for the Miami Dophins, Number 23.
LUTTON: You’ve got all your numbers picked out?
At the helm of this team is a man who played in a Harper jersey himself three decades ago.
CARROLL: All right, name is Maris Carroll, I’m the head football coach of Harper High School.
Coach Carroll says his entire coaching philosophy can be summed up in one word:
CARROLL: Stern. Try to be a little stern with them, give them some discipline. Try to be a father to them, a friend to them, you know, with the sternness.
CARROLL: Hey Dennis and Number 1. I hope you know this shit goes on tape. Y‘all standing flat-footed—no hustle—and nobody gonna recruit y’all ass standing around. I’m telling you that right f*ing now.
You need the “bleep” with Coach Carroll.
CARROLL: That’s the quarter. Bring the water! Bring the water! Bring the water!
The Cardinals have four team managers. They’re superfans, basically. Nia, Taiya, Julissa and Jiharra. The managers type up the plays, pass out jerseys, and mix the Gatorade. On game days they dress in the boys’ jerseys. They write players’ numbers on their cheeks in red lipstick. And they know a lot of secrets.
JIHARRA: You might think the boys are hard, they’re all tough and stuff, but inside they are soft! Real soft!! I done saw like half of them cry.
MANAGERS: Yes, yeah!
NIA: And they like the little Keyshia Cole.
JIHARRA: They like girl songs, too!
From the very first practice I went to, everybody made one thing clear: the Harper Cardinals were going for the Public League championship. The year before, Harper High had posted a dream season. Even with small players and a short roster, they made it to the final game. One of the dads told me that what Harper lacks in size they make up for in heart. And they’re quick, Coach Carroll says.
CARROLL: It’s old school football, really. We try to attack the edges, redirect. You think we’re going one way we come back the other way with the ball, so that’s what makes the offense that much funner.
It was fun watching the Cardinals. Antroyio Barton could weave his way out of a hornet’s nest of opposing players. And Sandelio looked like he was running track—no one could touch him. Even reporters in the press box loved watching them.
REPORTER: Whoa! This amazing. This is unbelieveable! I’m not supposed to be cheering. I’m trying to be professional but I have never seen anything like this!
At one time Harper was known for its football team, not for the violence of the neighborhood. And for a good number of staff and students at Harper—a football championship seemed like an excellent way to boost the school’s reputation.
Sophomore B.J. Rudder felt that.
B.J.: We’re coming from Englewood, a city known not much for its athletic abilities, but for its gang activity. So we have a mission. It’s our duty to show that great can come. This is something that we have to do, that we feel as if it’s our duty. At the end of the day, it comes to who wants it more. And I feel like, we not only want it, we feel as if we need this.
ANNOUNCER: Today’s ballgame: The hometeam, the Cardinals, of Harper High School. No running, no jumping, no knives, no guns allowed in the stadium.
When I started reporting at Harper I expected I’d find some football players who’d been touched by gun violence. I really did not anticipate answers like this:
LUTTON: Who do you know, football, who’s been either shot or shot at?
RODNEY: Probably the whole team, except the freshmen and sophomores.
ANTORYIO: I think everybody was shot at, since my four years being there. Everybody on the team.
That’s junior Rodney Jackson—and running back Antoryio, who gets around linemen by cutting and weaving and then racing for the end zone. Those are skills he purposefully ignores when shot at.
ANTROYIO: I fall to the ground.
LUTTON: That’s your strategy?
ANTORYIO: Yeah, Cuz if you run, you probably get shot in the back or something like that, so I just fall to the ground.
Sandelio lives about 10 blocks from Antoryio, on the other side of Harper.
SANDELIO: I’ve been shot at coming to school before. I was just happy I wasn’t hit. I still came to school the same day, still went to football practice, had a game the next day.
I asked another player—a quiet, serious boy—if he’d ever been shot at. He responded with a question: Does it count if you’ve had a gun put to your head?
Inside Harper’s attendance boundary are more than 15 gangs—also known as cliques or factions. They have names you’ve probably never heard of—TGC, Woods and Beyond, Madville, 6th Ward. Kids become associated with the gang that controls the block where they live, or where they spend their time. Saying you’re not involved in a gang is oftentimes not an option. It makes it nearly impossible for a boy in this neighborhood to walk anywhere safely.
One day I was talking to Coach Carroll before practice, when a mom drove up to drop her son Greg off.
MOM (from a distance): I need my tickets for Saturday.
She asked Coach Carroll if she could get tickets for Saturday’s game. Then, in what seemed like almost an afterthought, she asked if Greg could use Coach Carroll’s cell phone to call her when practice let out. “The boy who said he was gonna kill Greg, he got out of jail,” the mom explained.
“All right,” said Coach Carroll. As if this were the most normal request in the world.
Those sorts of moments always took me aback. Talking about kids getting shot, as if it were as everyday as the weather. On the first day of school I was with Harper’s assistant principal when he ran into a student he hadn’t seen all summer. They talked about how tall the student had grown, and also about how his bullet wound was healing.
COACH: That’s crazy. That’s what we go through in our community. Instead of us concentrating on football and things like that—which, the other schools, that’s all they concentrate on. Our kids, they’ve got all kinds of other obstacles and hurdles they gotta jump before they even get here.
Every coach has to get his team ready to play. But in addition to that, Coach Carroll has to make a team out of rival gang members. There are somewhere between five and seven different gangs represented on the Harper Cardinals. Players and school staff say between 70 and 90 percent of football players have some gang affiliation. Some of them tout it on their Facebook pages.
ANNOUNCER: Back deep: Number 2, Demoni Ware, Sandelio Wright
On the field, Sandelio is positioned right next to Demoni Ware for kickoff. In the neighborhood, their gangs are adjacent to each other too.
COACH: I don’t want to call them gangbangers, but this is the area they from. Money is from 6th Ward area, and Sandelio is from Madville area.
LL: And those two areas don’t get along?
CARROLL: At all. Like oil and vinegar.
COACHES: Back up, back up, Sandelio! Money, Money Money, back up!
Money’s body is covered with tattoos—a couple of them associated with the gang on his block.
But every football player I interviewed told me that on the practice field, in the weight room, on the football bus, during the three hours after school—the rules kids usually have to live by in this neighborhood, rules that pit one block against the next block—those rules are suspended. Here’s Money.
MONEY: When we get on the football field, we’re a team. We don’t even look at that. If our block was to get into it with somebody’s block that’s on the team, we’ll let that stay outside the team. We don’t even think about that on the field. We’re all family.
It is a huge victory, but also an incredibly fragile one. Sandelio and Money call each other brothers, but they can’t walk safely to each other’s houses. Money has to downplay his relationship with football players when he’s on his block. And most of the players on the team are from a single gang. Other kids are often afraid to come out.
When I asked the football players about this notion of brotherhood with rival gang member, they told me it was a relief, actually. Football was a relief. For three hours a day they didn’t have to think about watching their back. About fights or violence.
Taiya Hollis, one of the managers, sees that.
TAIYA: Some of these players on the team could be opps to each other—opps mean the opposite. And still at the end of the day, they’re a team. One may be WB, one may be Madville, but at the end of the day, they’re all together. Aint nobody gonna come in and ruin their relationship.
LUTTON: Do you see that anywhere else in school?
TAIYA: I don’t see that nowhere else in school—nowhere.
When I look back on the months I spent with the Harper Cardinals, one day stands out to me—it was Homecoming.
The day before, a nearby shooting nearly cancelled the football game and dance. But in the end, both went on as planned.
The Cardinals won their game 40 to zero. The bus ride home included deafening whoops from happy players.
At the dance, the gym pulsated with music, the fluorescent lights were dimmed. The homecoming queen’s crown bobbed up and down in the mass of dancing kids. Nearly all the football players were there. Antoryio Barton wore his homecoming king sash and crown.
The cafeteria was converted to a photography studio. The football managers posed in wobbly high heels in front of a backdrop with Roman columns, the sky a perfect blue.
It was a moment of ordinary, a homecoming dance just like any other homecoming dance anywhere. And in this context, it felt remarkable.
HARPER SECURITY GUARD: Let’s go, ladies and gentlemen! Let’s go!
The Cardinals made it to the quarter finals, where they lost to a big team, with big linebackers.
The night they lost, Coach Carroll had all the players turn in their football equipment right then and there. It was 11 o’clock. Some of the seniors cried.
The next day after school—the first day in months with no football practice, the players milled around near the locker rooms, hesitating to walk outside. Taylor Shaw is a wingback:
TAYLOR: Usually we come out here, wait right here. Wait for football practice to start. It’s not right no more.
LUTTON: No Coach Carroll yelling at you?
TAYLOR: I used to hate that. Now I’m starting to miss it now.
Coach Carroll says every end of season he thinks about his players--their safety.
CARROLL: Any given time, something can happen to them. Any given time, somebody riding down the street—see one of ‘em. So, (I) worry about all of them.
Football gave them a reason to stay out of trouble… and it gave them a break from the rules of the neighborhood. Coach Carroll told me he’ll start training for next season... in a few months.
Linda Lutton. WBEZ.