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Lazerus: Roosevelt football gets a fresh restart

Terrance Little right gestures while answering questions during press conference Gary Tuesday May 29 2012. Little was introduced as principal

Terrance Little, right, gestures while answering questions during a press conference in Gary Tuesday May 29, 2012. Little was introduced as the principal who will lead EdisonLearning's Roosevelt College and Career Academy next year. EdisonLearning'sTodd McIntire is at left. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 8, 2012 6:58PM



Eric Yarbrough was at a barbershop recently, looking for high schoolers to play football at Roosevelt. He came across a kid, maybe 5 years old.

Yarbrough handed him a miniature football.

“In the future, you’re going to come to Roosevelt,” Yarbrough told him. “Tell your older brothers, too.”

If you think you know where this story’s going, you’re probably right. It’s another Gary football reboot. Another recommitment to putting a quality product on the field. Another attempt to reconnect to the city’s glorious athletic past. Another June of big proclamations, big ideas and big dreams. Hope springs eternal, after all. Even in the forgotten wasteland of Gary football.

Yarbrough is saying all the things he and countless other Gary coaches have said before. He’s going to get more kids to play. He’s going to field a junior varsity team with a full schedule. He’s going to instill some pride in the program. He’s going to reinvigorate the community. He’s going to make it cool to be a Panther.

“There’s excitement in the air,” Yarbrough said.

Yep. You’ve heard it all before. And if you’re like most region sports fans, you’ve hoped it was true. And you’ve eventually been disappointed. Time and time again.

Yarbrough knows this. Realizes this. Admits this.

But he really does believe it this time. Spend a few minutes talking with his new principal, Terrance Little, and you can understand why.

You can also understand why Yarbrough talks as if he were just hired for a new job last week, instead of simply being retained after three years as the Panthers’ head coach.

“It feels that way,” said Yarbrough, whose interview with Little was largely conducted while the two meandered around the school’s football field. “This is the first time I’m working with somebody who really understands football and what it takes to put a product on the field, and what it takes to win.”

It’s no secret that Roosevelt is in shambles, the building itself literally crumbling. And when EdisonLearning was first hired by the state to take over and turn around the school, Roosevelt students, coaches and fans were legitimately concerned that athletics might be abolished entirely, so that the focus could be put solely on academics.

But Little — a two-sport letterman in high school who tried to walk on to the football team at Jackson State —is most definitely a booster.

“Our mission is not just to improve academics, it’s to improve our students in every facet of their lives,” Little said. “That includes extra-curricular activities. We’re trying to educate them socially and emotionally, as well, and we know how big a role sports can play in that.

“I’m a big, big, big, big, big, big sports fan. I believe it teaches leadership skills, teaches you how to work with one another, teaches you how to deal with adversity. All extra-curricular activities do.”

And so on top of worrying about the tumbling test scores and the crumbling concrete steps at Roosevelt, Little is working with Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and the so-called “Friends of Ted” — a booster club of sorts, composed of various local business owners — to give the athletic department the basic necessities it’s been lacking for years.

That means new uniforms. New tackling sleds. New chutes. It means Yarbrough won’t have to use old, broken bleachers for board drills for his linemen.

“What we’re trying to do is just get a lot of help,” Little said. “I assure you our football team will look a lot better this year, and that they’ll have the equipment and the proper tools they need to compete.”

Perhaps the most important tool is a bus, or a van, to shuttle kids from home to school and back for summer workouts. Yarbrough has potential players from all over Gary, from the Marquette Park area to Chase Street.

“When you can’t drive and your mother and father are working, there’s no way for you to get to practice a lot of times,” Yarbrough said. “And when practice ends after 6, you’re wondering, ‘How am I going to get home?’ I need to be able to take them to practice and get them home at a reasonable time.”

These are issues that the Crown Points and Valparaisos of the world don’t need to worry about. It’s why Yarbrough doesn’t even know who’ll actually be on his roster until about Week 3 of the regular season, when school finally starts. It’s why Roosevelt often has fewer than 20 kids on its roster by season’s end. It’s why Yarbrough’s relatively modest goals — 40-something players, enough to have a real JV team — seem so lofty, so improbable.

But without a JV team, without a feeder system of some sort, Roosevelt’s going nowhere. Yarbrough knows this. And more importantly, so does Little.

“I’m telling every kid that comes out, ‘If you don’t play on Friday, don’t worry about it, because you will play on Saturday,’” Yarbrough said. “The guys will get the reps, and that’s the most important thing. When you have a kid that played eighth-grade ball, then freshmen ball, then JV ball, and now he’s playing varsity football as a junior — and I’m playing a freshman that has no varsity experience, that has nine reps — it’s a mismatch, even if he has the size to beat the other kid.”

It’s Yarbrough’s job to get the kids to practice, and to teach them how to play. It’s Little’s job to give Yarbrough the tools to do that.

And it’s both of their jobs to get people in the Roosevelt community to care, to spend their money and their time to support the kids that do come out.

“I’ve been talking to the alumni association, trying to get them to tailgate at each game,” Little said. “They can get their tents and the Class of ’60 can compete against the Class of ’70 and have a good time in the parking lot while we’re inside the stadium beating up on whoever we’re beating up on.”

Oh, one more thing.

“Last but definitely not least — we’re looking for West Side,” Little said, with mischief in his voice. “We’re not overlooking anybody, but we’ve got West Side (Oct. 12) circled on the calendar.”

It all sounds wonderful.

It also all sounds familiar.

“Jerry Ruiz, our really good running back, decided to stay with me,” Yarbrough said. “He said, ‘I’m going to be part of something big.’ Regardless of what goes on, it’s going to be a history-making season at Roosevelt.”

Here’s hoping he’s right, and that it’s not just history repeating itself.



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