Unlike some resource-rich powerhouses that typically vie for Illinois' high school football championships, the Phillips Academy Wildcats must lug their helmets and pads nearly a mile to a South Side Chicago city park to practice. They have no field of their own.
A former gang member-turned-star safety sleeps at the assistant coach's house because he and six other teammates fit the school system's technical definition of homeless.
The city's first all-black high school already made history by becoming the first team from the embattled public school system to advance to the state finals in 32 years.
They are a sure underdog in Friday night's game against the Rochester Rockets — a small central Illinois farming community for their fifth straight title. But an upset victory would make the Wildcats the first Chicago public school ever to lift a first-place football trophy.
Even if they lose, the Wildcats already have beaten tough odds — as a team and as individuals growing up in a place that can be exceedingly tough on its youth.
"Football isn't as hard as our everyday lives," said Jamal Brown, the 19-year-old former dropout and gang member who's headed to college on a football scholarship. "You'll have to break our legs to make us stop coming."
A strategy built on that determination and an ethos of family-building is central to the team's success. Located in the historic Bronzeville neighborhood, the school has students from a range of South Side neighborhoods, some that are plagued by nationally infamous gang violence and senseless killings. One of the team's seniors was even shot in the ankle as a freshman in a drive-by shooting.
The 600-student academy was deemed a "failing" school four years ago, leading city officials to fire and replace much of its staff. It also has produced standouts — including Gwendolyn Brooks, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet — and today, 90 percent of its students go on to college, its website says.
The football coaches won't allow the Wildcats to dwell on disadvantages, like the lack of a home field, no equipment like blocking sleds and the mile-and-a-half round-trip to practice every afternoon. It's one of a many public schools that must share a home stadium in another part of the city, meaning the Wildcats play a patchwork schedule instead of every Friday night like most schools across Illinois.
"There are 100 reasons, but in the end they're excuses," head coach Troy McAllister said. "We don't want any excuses."
The team knew it was for real early in the season, when it crushed a far better outfitted team from 3,000-student high school in Naperville, a suburb west of Chicago. The score was 40-7 — a Class 4A team drubbing a Class 8A team.
But the biggest challenges for the Wildcats are the ones some have faced individually. Seven don't live with parents or legal guardians, hence the homeless designation. But their teammates have rallied around them; they all planned to eat Thanksgiving dinner together.
"We say to parents, 'You are going to send us a boy and we are going to send back a young man,'" McAllister said.
Brown has faced longer odds than most: His father died of a heart attack before he was born. He only sporadically sees his mother, who's in prison. When he was 6, he saw his grandfather strike and kill his grandmother. After the death of a beloved family friend he was living with, he dropped out of school as a sophomore and started hanging with a gang.
After a year of that, he says he felt compelled to get his life back on track.
"I didn't want to get locked up and accomplish nothing," he said. "I didn't want my legacy to be — Jamal the gangbanger."
Upon returning to school, he feared rival gangs and sometimes wouldn't leave the apartment in his housing complex because of gunfire. So, he gladly accepted assistant coach Michael Larson's invitation to come live with him on the comparatively well-off North Side.
"It's nice to see him not having to watch his back anymore," Larson said.
Today, Brown commutes to school by subway. He and quarterback Dewayne Collins both recently committed to play football at Illinois State University.
Brown dreams of playing in the NFL, and holds a longer-term aspiration to teach history. But before that, he wants to make it Friday.
"We know we can go down in history," Brown said about Friday night's championship in Champaign. "It drives us."