For years the city of East St. Louis, Ill., has been a national symbol of urban collapse. The streets and sewers are crumbling; crime and unemployment rates are depressingly high; the government is so swamped with debt that the Mayor was recently forced to hand over the deed to City Hall to satisfy a liability claim. But in the midst of this municipal meltdown, across the Mississippi from St. Louis, this city of 55,000 people, mostly black, has fostered one minor miracle: an extraordinary high school football team.
East St. Louis High, in fact, is the citadel of a football dynasty. With a pothole-filled practice field and a dressing room crowded with rusty, doorless lockers, the Flyers, under the tough, paternalistic stewardship of Coach Robert Shannon, were the top-ranked high school team in the country last year, despite the fact that the city’s Board of Education had no money to allocate for team equipment or for the salaries of two assistant coaches. This year they are 8-0 and No. 3 in USA Today’s national ranking of high school teams.
While budget shortfalls are a problem, they are not the worst of Shannon’s worries. At times scrimmages have been interrupted by drive-by shootings on adjacent streets. One day two years ago the team arrived for practice to find police marking off a section of the field where a drug dealer had been assassinated the night before. Gangs with names like the Disciples and Vice Lords rule the neighborhood streets and frequently taunt members of the team for refusing to join them.
“I tell our players there are two things you can’t buy: trust and respect,” says Shannon. “The guy in the street wants respect, too, but for the wrong reasons. I want my players to understand there’s nothing wrong with being a good person.”
That philosophy—and 15 hours of drills each week—have produced a team that has lost just four games in the past eight years. “The No. 1 thing about Coach Shannon is his work ethic,” says Deandre Singleton, 16, the Flyers quarterback. “Sometimes we are the only team out there when it’s 100° outside.” If the work ethic fails, Shannon has another source of motivation: a wooden paddle he keeps in the equipment room. “If you mess up on the field or in class you get the butt buster,” says Roderick Fisher, 15, a safety and split end. “Coach Shannon has tremendous authority,” says Tom Holly, a St. Louis sporting goods store owner who helped equip the team. “He is able to get players and supporters alike to run through walls with him.”
About half of Shannon’s players end up going to college, some on full scholarships. A few, not surprisingly, go back to the streets. Shannon recalls one youngster who showed promise as a sophomore but dropped out of school soon after. “He saw his mama shoot her boyfriend with a sawed-off shotgun that almost cut the guy in two pieces,” Shannon says. “He just started going downhill, and by his junior year he was out selling drugs. It’s not a good feeling to see young people mess up their lives,” adds Shannon. “But you know, life goes on, and I understand you can’t save them all. Some don’t want to save themselves cither.”
Raised in poverty in Natchez, Miss., Shannon feels a special affinity for the youngsters he coaches. As a boy he often got up at midnight to help his father stoke the boilers at the sawmill where he worked as a night watchman. Shannon was 12 when his father died. He learned to live with hunger as his mother tried to support 11 children on her $10-a-week earnings as a cleaning lady. “I once went to this lady called Big Mama, who ran the local house of ill repute, and I asked her if I could do any work in exchange for food.” Shannon says. “She brought me inside and fed me. That is the first and last time I ever asked for food.”
A star quarterback in high school, Shannon earned a football scholarship to Tennessee State University. In 1969, during his junior year, he joined the Washington Redskins and rode the bench for a year. He returned to TSU, earned a teaching degree and then signed on as a coach at East St. Louis High. Over the years he has maintained a no-cut policy. As long as a player keeps his grades up and stays out of trouble, he can play.
Shannon and his wife, Jeanette, 42, an elementary school teacher who also works in East St. Louis, commute from a tranquil suburban neighborhood in nearby Ferguson, Mo. In recent years Shannon has been offered the opportunity to coach both at the University of Missouri and at his alma mater, Tennessee State. For the time being, however, he remains a man with a more important mission. “Some people say you can’t take inner city kids and mold them,” Shannon says. “Well, you can’t change Jack the Ripper if he’s in here. But as long as I can see a kid changing his life a little bit at a time, he’s worth working with.
—David Grogan, Nina Burleigh in East St. Louis