Chicago Sun-Times, Dec 25, 2005 by Taylor Bell
The news struck Abe Woodson like a lightning bolt, as if he had been blindsided by a linebacker. Austin High School, Woodson's alma mater on Chicago's far West Side, no longer will field a football team. The sport has been dropped. School officials have been informed that Austin won't be included on next year's Chicago Public League football schedule.
"It's a done deal," said seven-year coach and athletic director Steve Tadlock. "The school is being phased out as we know it. It is a victim of Renaissance 2010. The old school will become three small schools for special curriculum. There won't be a football program."
Woodson remembers the way it was, when Austin was one of the most celebrated high school football programs in the nation, when it ranked with Fenwick, Mount Carmel, Lindblom and Fenger among the powerhouses in Chicago, when tradition meant more than a trophy and a headline.
He attended Crane as a freshman, then followed his older brother Hugh to Austin. He knew about the history of the program ... coach Bill Heiland, Bill DeCorrevont, Alf Bauman, Pete Pihos, Prep Bowl victories in 1936, 1937 and 1947. He led Austin to the Prep Bowl in 1952, went on to become an All-America halfback at Illinois, then played for nine years in the NFL.
"I can't believe they will delete a program at a school with that kind of tradition in sports, especially football," said Woodson, 71, now a volunteer minister in Las Vegas who preaches to prison inmates. "Trace the history of outstanding football teams, a great coach, great players, good people. I can't believe they are going to drop football."
Neither can Don Harris, who co-captained the 1952 team with Joe Lullo. "A sadness comes over me. It was such a rich tradition that we had inherited. We all came from poverty. We were able to make an impact. I was largely unaware of what was going on outside of sports at Austin," said Harris, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., and runs three companies.
Mike Panitch, who quarterbacked Austin teams in the 1952 and 1953 Prep Bowls before going on to play at Michigan State, recalls that 11 Austin graduates once played in the NFL at one time.
"The tragedy isn't athletics but academics," Panitch said. "There is a lot more to this story than what is happening to the football team. A school that had a great tradition won't be competitive in athletics or academics. But Austin isn't the only school that has deteriorated. It is a big issue across America. Kids aren't being educated."
In 1937, the most celebrated high school football game in history was played before a record crowd estimated from 115,000 to 125,000 at Soldier Field. No other game -- high school, college or professional -- ever drew more. Austin beat Leo 26-0 in the fourth meeting between the city's Public and Catholic League champions.
Austin was led by DeCorrevont, the Red Grange of his era. He scored 33 touchdowns and 204 points in a nine-game season, including three touchdowns against Leo.
He was a cereal box hero whose exciting runs and everyday life experiences were chronicled in newspapers from Chicago to New York City. He went on to play at Northwestern and the NFL.
The school produced many other football stars in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Led by Heiland, Austin played in six Prep Bowls from 1936 to 1958, winning three. Larry Preo, now executive director of the Purdue Alumni Association, quarterbacked the Tigers to a 20-7 victory over Fenwick in 1958.
"We had the original coach," Harris said. "Heiland was interested in kids. He let us call our own games, let us be leaders and taught us fundamentals and subtleties of the game. He was marvelous at bringing a team to an emotional peak."
"He had a great mind, long before everyone else," Woodson said. "He invented the spread formation in 1952. I was the tailback. He gave me the option to run or pass. He taught us to persevere, to hang in there no matter what was happening, to keep your mind on what you were trying to accomplish, to not let things distract you. He was a great man."
John Riehle has many positive memories, too. At age 24, he became head football coach at Austin in 1972. After seven years, he moved on. He coached at Evanston from 1988 to 1999, then served as athletic director from 2000 to 2004 before retiring. But he never has forgotten his time at Austin.
"On Sundays, I still look for the Austin score in the newspaper," Riehle said. "The Prep Bowl trophies were in the locker room. There was the picture in the equipment room, the 1937 Austin-Leo game with the largest crowd ever to see a football game. And I remembered DeCorrevont, Heiland and Woodson.
"My fondest memory was in 1976. I coached the last Austin team to play in Soldier Field. We lost to Vocational, which beat St. Rita in the Prep Bowl. I wanted to rekindle the ghosts of the past at Austin. The rewards were great. One year, we sent two kids to the Big Ten. Now Austin is dropping football. It is very, very sad, knowing what football meant to that school at one time."
Nobody is more disappointed or devastated than Tadlock, who worked very hard to rebuild the program to the point where he was excited to see joy in the faces of alumni who attended homecoming games. He had changed the attitude of neighborhood youngsters who wanted to play football at Austin.
Now Tadlock doesn't know where he will be next year, if he will coach again. And the 12 juniors on his last varsity squad are looking to transfer to other schools. Two Division I recruits, 6-5, 320-pound offensive tackle Willie Scott and 6-4, 285-pound offensive tackle Martell Black, probably will attend Steinmetz in the 2006-07 school year.
"Before, kids got no recruiting letters. Now they are being recruited," Tadlock said. "A lot of old-timers have talked to me because they were excited that we were starting to turn the corner. We tried hard to bring back the pride.
"Now, I don't know what will happen to kids I have known since sixth grade. Some kids are angry because they want to come to Austin but can't. Many kids are being sent to Marshall, Wells, Clemente and Collins. It hurts. I don't think the powers-that-be truly understand how it hurts the children. Now they don't have a future here."
Copyright CHICAGO SUN-TIMES 2005