Third-and-10 doesn’t seem so daunting to Wendell Phillips Academy coach Troy McAllister – not when part of his job description involves keeping his players safe from gang violence in one of the most dangerous parts of Chicago.
McAllister, a white native of Kingston, Ontario in Canada, accepted the position at the first all-black school in Chicago in July of 2010. A former assistant coach at Dunbar Academy just up the road from Phillips, McAllister had a good idea of what he was getting into when he accepted the position.
“There’s no question, I got the job because nobody else wanted it,” McAllister said. “It was one of those deals. We started with 12 players at the first practice. Phillips was the second worst school in Illinois.”
Due to its low academic ranking, Phillips had been designated as a turn-around school. Every employee in the building had been terminated, including the principal.
Perhaps even more challenging than the academic environment was the outside influences his prospective players would face in the Bronzeville neighborhood, an inner-city neighborhood with heavy crime in Chicago’s South Side.
“One of the toughest challenges we faced on a daily basis was the gang situation in Chicago,” McAllister said. “I tried to provide a sense of belonging and accomplishment.”
McAllister’s methods worked, and the program made steady progress. Last season, Phillips made history by becoming the first team from the Chicago public school system to advance to the state finals in 32 years. The Wildcats (12-2) fell just short of becoming the first Chicago public school ever lift the state-championship trophy with a state finals loss to Rochester.
“How far we made it is something to be proud of,” McAllister said. “We had our ups and downs, but we stuck together. A lot of young men realized this is their opportunity to achieve success and accomplish great things. It also keeps them off the streets and out of gang situations.”
Phillips will never be confused with the nearby private schools like Mount Carmel or De La Salle – schools brimming with large athletic budgets and resources. McAllister’s players have to walk a quarter-mile to practice at a park district field with no bleachers. Phillips strong safety Jamal Brown was on the brink of dropping out of school during his sophomore year after getting involved with a gang. Seven of Phillips’ players last season qualified as homeless because they didn’t live with either of their respective parents.
Those circumstances did not define Phillips, and six of the players signed National Letters of Intent on National Signing Day.
“What we say is, we might not have the resources, but we will overcome regardless,” McAllister said. “Young men make mistakes, but we don’t turn our backs on them.”
- Built in 1904, Wendell Phillips Academy was Chicago’s first predominantly African-American high school. Former students include Crooner Nat King Cole, soul man Sam Cooke, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks and cosmetics magnate George Johnson Sr. In 2010, the school was rated the second-worst high school, in terms of academic performance and overall experience, in the state.
- McAllister played football at Queen’s University, and earned a Master’s in Education from D’Youville College in Buffalo. In 2006, he drove across the country in a silver Chevy Impala after seeing a flyer at school about a job fair in Chicago. He was hired on the spot to teach kindergarten at a South Side elementary school.
- McAllister spent three years teaching at that elementary school, Dulles School of Excellence on Chicago’s South Side. There, he met his future wife, Dorothy. They married in 2007 and have lived on the South Side ever since. In 2009, he moved on to teach at Benjamin E. Mays Elementary Academy, where he coached basketball.
- Phillips’ win total has grown each of the six years that McAllister has served as coach. In the summer of 2014, McAllister agreed to take the coaching job at Evergreen Park, a suburban school Phillips had just beaten in the playoffs. That deal eventually fell through, and McAllister admitted his mistake and came back to coach Phillips.
- McAllister was named the Chicago Bears High School “Coach of the Week” last September after his team stunned Naperville North 40-7. With an enrollment of 3,019 students, Naperville North entered the game undefeated in Class 8A. Phillips, which had an enrollment of 635, played in the much smaller Class 4A. The Chicago Bears made a $1,500 contribution to Phillips.
Safety Jamal Brown has perhaps the most incredible success story of any player at Phillips. After growing up in one of the most crime-infested neighborhoods on the South Side, he became disinterested in school when his grandmother died during his sophomore year at Phillips. He joined a gang, and got caught up in a lifestyle of guns and drugs.
“I knew I wasn’t really that way,” Brown said. “I wasn’t in school, and I didn’t have much of a family. I needed to change what was going on.”
Brown missed school for two weeks, and when Phillips assistant coach Michael Larson questioned him, Brown said he feared for his safety while leaving the house due to the gang activity in the area.
Larson took Brown into his own home, and the defensive back has lived with him ever since. Last fall, Brown accepted a scholarship offer from the coaching staff at Western Michigan after a season in which he posted 85 tackles, six interceptions and one fumble recovery.
“It’s really big for me because a year ago I wasn’t in school,” Brown said. “I didn’t know where that would lead. They offered me a full scholarship to come go to school and play football. It showed me I have a bright future to do something with my life.”
“It’s a great success story,” McAllister said. “Jamal’s a perfect example of a young man who has made changes to his life and raised the bar for what we’ve come to expect.”
(Hear This! Quote)
“I wasn’t in school, and I didn’t have much family. I needed to change …” – Phillips safety Jamal Brown
Starting from square one
McAllister took over a decrepit program in 2010 with no home field on the school campus, an outdated weight room in the school basement and only 12 players interested.
Through private donations, the team raised funds to improve the weight room. The coaching staff and players walk a quarter-mile to their practice field each day, and for games, set up portable bleachers for local fans.
Now the football team has grown to 40 players, but that offers its share of challenges as well. McAllister says each year about half the freshman attend their first practice having never played a down of football.
“One of the first things we did is got a youth program going, but we still get some players who have never played before,” McAllister said. “Any time we can get a kid, and we don’t have to teach him how to put on the pads, it’s a blessing.”