Jackson Street in Mascoutah is a long way from Pershing Road on the south side of Chicago.
After years of searching for his purpose, through three colleges and a stint in the Army, Wendell Phillips Academy is where former Mascoutah High School three-sport standout Mike Larson discovered his passion.
As the defensive coordinator at Phillips, Larson will have more than the usual coach’s concerns as he prepares the Wildcats to stop the Althoff Crusaders on Friday in the Class 4A football state championship game.
Phillips players dress for practice at the school and walk nearly a mile to practice every day at Mandrake Park on East Pershing Road.
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Cold temperatures are far from the only risky venture the players endure in their lives on a daily basis. There’s plenty of crime, drugs and any number of other pitfalls waiting around the next corner.
The only piece of equipment at their practice field? Footballs.
“The biggest challenge as a coach is worrying about the boys getting home from practice,” said Larson, who has been teaching and coaching at Phillips since 2011. “Most of the time they’re taking the public train or bus, sitting out at the bus stop.
“You’re wondering if everybody got home safe.”
Searching for his calling
As a talented fullback and tight end, football took Larson to Western Illinois University in Macomb, Harper Junior College in Chicago and later Illinois State in Normal.
A four-year stint in the Army from 2005 to 2009 included a two-year tour of Iraq and preceded the next leg of his football journey.
A chance meeting got Larson involved not only in teaching but also with another shot at football, this time as an assistant coach at Wendell Phillips Academy in Bronzeville on Chicago’s south side.
The biggest challenge as a coach is worrying about the boys getting home from practice. Most of the time they’re taking the public train or bus, sitting out at the bus stop. You’re wondering if everybody got home safe.
Phillips defensive coordinator Mike Larson
Now 33, Larson is the defensive coordinator at Phillips and finds himself facing the same Althoff Crusaders team he saw as an opponent in basketball and baseball when he was back home at Mascoutah.
No Chicago Public League School has ever won a state football title. Before Phillips reached the 4A title game last season, the only other Public League team to reach the finals was Roberson in 1982.
Phillips (13-0) meets Althoff (13-0) for the 4A state title in a 7 p.m. game Friday at Northern Illinois University’s Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.
“I remember playing a lot of basketball games at Althoff, so it’s a homecoming in a sense,” said Larson, whose team is making its second straight 4A title game appearance after losing 49-28 to Rochester in 2014. “We’re really excited to give it a go Friday night. Last year was a great year for us but we know Althoff is a great opponent and they beat Rochester (in the quarterfinals), so we’re excited for a chance to play them.”
For the second straight year, Phillips is one win away from making history.
“It’s like the whole city of Chicago is rooting for you,” said Larson, who revels in the emotion shown by Wildcats’ players that have reached the state championship game two years in a row. “Earning another berth to the state title game, those guys are ecstatic. Seeing the joy in their eyes is rewarding enough.”
Larson estimated that in a school of 559 students “anywhere from 80 to 100 are classified as being homeless. Every kid’s story is unique and different, but through football and education some of them have found a path and something they can call home.
“Nearly a third of the boys at Phillips are involved in football. Every kid doesn’t make it, but the opportunity is definitely there if they want it.”
Jackson Street in Mascoutah was a lot different.
It also was home to four Division I athletes that all played for the Indians at the same time. Along with Larson there were future University of Illinois baseball player Josh Lane, future Troy basketball player Ryan Heck and future Arkansas State baseball player Doug Walter.
Lane is now the principal at Millstadt Grade School and Heck is a teacher and basketball coach at Okawville.
“We all played wiffle ball in the summers and twice a year we still hold a wiffle ball tournament in Mascoutah,” Larson said.
Lane visited Larson last weekend and was at snow-covered Gately Stadium in Chicago to watch Phillips’ 47-13 semifinal playoff victory over Marengo.
We definitely wouldn’t be where we are today without him. It’s hard to put into words because he does so much for us as a program and for me as individual.
Phillips coach Troy McAllister on assistant Mike Larson
“I think he found his calling after he went searching at couple of other places,” Lane said. “It’s all about building a relationship with kids and that’s really a strength for Mike. To see him come up here and have success at a place that wasn’t known for football has been great.”
Asked what he remembered the most about Larson’s personality, Lane quickly answered “His competitiveness. He didn’t like to lose no matter what we were playing. You see him with those kids (Saturday) and he’s so fired up.”
Providing a helping hand
Only five years ago, conditions at Phillips had gotten so bad it was designated a “turnaround school” and it was taken over by the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a nonprofit group that manages troubled school districts.
Sports had become an afterthought at a high school where there were bigger battles to fight in areas such as low test scores or just keeping students in school, period.
It’s like the whole city of Chicago is rooting for you.
Former teachers, administrators and coaches were replaced by an entirely new group of personnel.
Along with athletic director John Byrne, another newcomer was Phillips head coach Troy McAllister, who walked into one of the all-time reclamation projects.
Putting in and offense and defense were among the least of his problems, yet McAllister rolled up his sleeves and went to work. Larson joined the staff in 2011 and the pair hit it off immediately.
Larson had been part of the AUSL program previously at Orr High, where he also coached football.
“Each and every year he’s been with us he’s developed as a coach, in his mentoring role, as well as his x’s and o’s schemes,” said McAllister, whose first team in 2010 was 2-7 before the Wildcats reached the quarterfinals in 2013 and the state title game last year. “What we do defensively is pretty unique. We definitely wouldn’t be where we are today without him.”
“It’s hard to put into words because he does so much for us as a program and for me as individual.”
A little over a year ago, Larson and fiancee Charity Hoskins went way above and beyond just helping out one of the Phillips players.
Then-senior Jamal Brown, who had been fending for himself on the streets with his mother in prison and his father already dead, decided attending high school at Phillips was a far better alternative to his previous situation.
He had lived with relatives and family friends in Detroit and elsewhere before ending up in Chicago, but had nothing permanent in terms of a home — or a foundation. After talking with some students at Phillips, the former gang member decided to enroll there, according to Larson. He met Larson at Phillips during his junior year and eventually moved in with the coach and his fiancee in June, 2014.
That took Brown from one of the toughest areas of the country, the Parkway Gardens area near 64th Street and King Drive in Chicago, to a more stable environment at Larson’s apartment in Wicker Park.
“He was living in probably the toughest housing development in Chicago,” Larson said. “His dad died when (Jamal) was at a young age and his mom is incarcerated, so he was just bouncing around from place to place.
“He and I became pretty close during some college visits we took together and it was that spring when he mentioned that he didn’t feel safe in his environment. We built a special bond and we thought it was the best idea to have him finish up his senior year with us.”
It was a transition for both sides, to be sure, but one that eventually saw Brown prosper as a student and an athlete. He wound up being rewarded by graduating high school and with a football scholarship to Illinois State.
“He’s doing a good job at Illinois State and it’s really been cool to see him blossom and have that opportunity,” Larson said. “It was an amazing experience. We don’t have any children so you’re kind of raising a kid in reverse order. You have an 18-year-old before you ever had a baby, so she and I were kind of learning on the fly.”
In August. Larson and his fiancee drove Brown to Illinois State and dropped him off for his freshman year. This week, Brown is taking the train home to Chicago and will be with Larson and his fiancee for Thanksgiving before traveling to watch his former team play for a state championship.
“The best thing is he’s got an opportunity now,” Larson said of Brown, who is redshirting as a defensive back at ISU. “So many kids kind of get left behind and in Jamal’s case, at least he’s on an even playing field right now. It’s his choice from here on out, but at least hes’ got the opportunity.”
A wild ride
Larson has done a little bit of everything. He played three sports in high school, played Division I college football and was a First Lieutenant in the Army, doing a tour of Baghdad in 2007-08 as a tank platoon leader.
That’s a lot more pressure than serving as a football coach, but Larson has been molded by his previous experiences.
He moved to Mascoutah in seventh grade when his father, Michael Larson Sr., was transferred to Scott Air Force Base on duty. His father was later killed in an automobile accident near Carlyle.
Mike Larson played football under former Indians coach Chris Lindsay and basketball for current Indians coach Scott Oltmann. When his father spent a year on assignment in Italy, Larson lived with the Heck family in Mascoutah and still remains extremely close with all of them.
Football and family are at the center of his life once again with Phillips preparing to play for a state title.
“We didn’t make the playoffs, but the best time of my life was playing football at Mascoutah, for sure,” said Larson, whose ability to touch lives along with teaching and coaching football are making a difference. “It’s just a testament to you putting in the work and good things will happen.”