Every parent knows the agony and ecstasy of watching a child perform.
Whether it’s a concert, a school play, or an athletic competition, it’s always fun, in that it evokes a real sense of pride in what little Millie or Billy has learned to do.
It’s also torture because you want your child to perform well—perfectly, if possible—for the child’s sake, of course. And it’s totally out of your hands.
My kids are well beyond their child-star years, but I have great memories of the hundreds of events I sat through…well, most of them.
Enthusiastic but staunchly objective: That was how I rolled. I was there to lend support to all the kids, not just my own, and wouldn’t think of criticizing an opposing player or belaboring an official or lobbying a coach for more playing time. No, sir.
Well, there was this one ref who somehow missed it when that beefy girl from Burbank blatantly went over my daughter’s back going for a rebound and a put-back basket at St. Francis one evening. What game was he watching?
And I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an umpire squeeze a pitcher any worse than my son got it from that nearsighted dweeb at Dooley Field one Saturday morning.
Hawk, I hear you.
But I’m over it now.
Or at least I thought I was until a recent Saturday when I found myself at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston for the Illinois High School Association state track finals. The state championship in Class 1-A would be decided in the final event of the two-day meet: the 4-by-400-meter relay. Newton High, from the tiny, Central Illinois town of Newton, needed to finish fourth or better to claim its first state title.
Newton’s anchor-leg runner was a gritty young man who had helped his team accumulate its 30 points by competing in three events in two days of blistering heat. Newton’s relay team was in third place as he took the baton from the No. 3 runner, and if he could hold that position for his grueling lap around the track, the Eagles would be state champions.
I was hoping he’d take a wrong turn. Or worse, fall. I was ashamed of myself for thinking that, and I tried to suppress the smile that came to my face and grew wider as each of three runners passed the game-but-spent Newton youngster, relegating the Eagles to sixth place in the event and a runner-up finish in the meet, with 34 points.
The Lions from Chicago’s Leo High School were first-place finishers, with 35 points, and state champions for the second year in a row.
I couldn’t have been happier if those were my own kids out there running for Leo. And, in a sense, they were. I went to Leo, more than a few years ago, and I work there now, as the school president, a surprising destination for me after a long career in journalism. I think of Leo’s students as “my kids,” and I’m proud to.
(Video by Cresencia Felty)
Leo is a small, all-boys, inner-city school of about 150 students in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood on the South Side. We’re a Catholic school, so we have to charge tuition, and we serve some of the most disadvantaged areas of the city. Nearly all of our kids receive financial aid, most of it provided by a predominantly white, unfailingly generous alumni network.
Our kids are polite, friendly, motivated and well-behaved. They understand that someone is making a sacrifice for them to be at Leo—their parents, their grandparents, a guardian or an alum—so they work hard in school and they try to do the right things as people.
Being around “my kids” every day, I pick up on their likes and dislikes, on what’s important to them—for many, sports is the currency of the culture. I realized this shortly after I was introduced at my very first assembly. A well-meaning but windy speech was drifting right over their heads, going nowhere and drawing yawns until the vice-principal who had introduced me bailed me out.
“Before Mr. McGrath came to Leo,” he told the students, “he was a sportswriter.”
Well, it wasn’t like Derrick Rose had walked through the door, but it gave me a smidgen of credibility in the kids’ world. Sure enough, a little guy seated near the front immediately jumped to his feet. “Kobe or LeBron?” he demanded, and a lively discussion followed.
Darnell, the little guy, is now part of a group that comes by my office every Monday morning to recap the weekend in sports. They want me to know what they know.
We’re an academic school first and foremost, and we’re proud of our scholastic achievements. The week before the state track meet we graduated 100 percent of our seniors, for the third year in a row. (ESPN’s Stephen Bardo, co-captain of the 1989 “Flyin’ Illini”, did a terrific job as our commencement speaker). Each graduate has been accepted to at least one college, and they have earned more than $700,000 in scholarship assistance.
But sports is important at Leo. We believe that the hard work, dedication, and commitment necessary for success on the playing field will help a youngster get ahead in life.
The track team embodies that lesson. We don’t have anything resembling a track, indoor or out, on our 87-year-old, one-building campus; the kids get ready for the season by running the halls and stairways. The marble floors are murder on the shins, too, but I’ve yet to hear anyone complain. It’s a point of pride among our kids that our meager facilities don’t hold them back when they compete against more affluent opponents.
We had an all-school assembly to honor the track team a few days after the state meet, and the pride in the room was palpable when the captains walked in carrying the state championship trophy. It was our seventh one for track and field. The team has also received seven IHSA academic citations for carrying a GPA above 3.0
Senior Keith Harris Jr., a track co-captain, is an All-State running back who has a football scholarship to Northern Illinois University. He’s also the Class of 2012 valedictorian, a sharp, talented, dedicated young man. One of our best.
Winning state was especially meaningful for Keith because he was injured and missed last year’s meet. He scored points in each of his three events this season, so he’s leaving Leo a state champion, and when he addressed the assembly he thanked his coaches and teammates for making that possible.
“I love you guys,” he said.
That’s how we roll.
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DAN McGRATH is the former sports editor of the Chicago Tribune and the current president of Leo High School.
STORY ART: Main image made in-house with photo courtesy Dan McGrath.