Zero. That’s the number of football state championships Leo High School has won since the state playoffs began 39 years ago.
Even though Leo competes in the lowest enrollment division, 1A, winning a state championship would be epic considering the miniscule Catholic school of 150 kids plays against schools with enrollments more than twice its size before and during the playoffs.
Leo has been a .500 team the past couple years, but for the first time in 20 years they’ve put together a seven-win season and a first-round shutout win in the state playoffs, showing the heart of exactly who they are: Lions.
But this story is about more than the gridiron; it’s about a unit striving for a common goal in the most uncommon of circumstances.
Leo is located in one of Chicago’s most crime-ridden areas, Auburn Gresham. But when you walk on the tiny campus with orange-colored signs and trees abound there’s no barbed wire fences or metal detectors or security guards patting down students at the entrance.
“Even though there’s a lot of crime going on in this neighborhood, we haven’t had a cop called here in five years,” Leo President Dan McGrath said. “I think people on the outside respect what we’re trying to do here, which is mold these young men and have them try and make something of themselves.”
Leo is a 90 percent African-American all-boys school, and on the streets of Auburn Gresham there is the sometime inescapable lure of drugs and violence. But inside Leo’s walls kids can find sanctuary.
If you walk around the halls of Leo, each student greets you, looks you in the eye and says, “yes sir” and “no sir” and holds the door open for you. Every kid is huddled in a 20 yard-wide lunchroom, laughing and joking around. It’s the type of place in which the whole football team does homework together an hour before practice. There’s a chapel inside the school in which kids can be seen praying and a massive boxing ring in which the boxing club members can get out their daily frustrations and connect with their brothers. That’s what Leo is about: a small, collective, brotherly family environment.
So small that McGrath even joked about the time former Michigan State head basketball coach Jud Heathcote came to Leo to recruit a player and said, “This is a nice practice gym you have here.”
“The kids know and look out for each other,” McGrath said. “We view each other as family. It’s a special place.”
So special that Leo has a 100 percent college acceptance rate over the last five years, and even more impressive out of the 10 highest grades in the senior class, eight are on the football team.
Leo head football coach Michael Holmes was a former three sport athlete an all-state football player and a two-year starting running back at Illinois. He became the head coach at Leo years later, later leaving the job. After he left, something inside him was missing.
“Being my alma mater, I knew what Leo did for me. It made me into what I am today. Seven years ago I was an urban planner, but Leo had always been in my heart. So I took a $50,000 pay cut to come back and coach here. I almost lost my wife over it. It’s a blessing for me to get kids to college and hear them become young men.” Holmes said.
McGrath understands what Holmes does for these kids’ lives.
“He’s a mentor and a motivator. He’s like a second father to a lot of those kids on the team, and they know he’s there for them,” McGrath said.
Four years ago, McGrath had that same inner feeling urging him to come back to his roots.
“I went to Leo in 1968 when it was a mostly white school, by the time I graduated it was mostly all black, about 30 percent. It became mostly kids from single-parent families and the perception on the outside came to be that Leo wasn’t in a safe neighborhood. But this place helped give me a good start in life. I had been in the sportswriting business for 37 years and I felt like coming back was what I needed to do.” McGrath said.
Strolling alongside McGrath in the school’s hallways, you can see every student greet McGrath say yes sir, no sir. He asks how their day is going and takes the time to talk with the different students in passing and they know his inquiring is genuine.
To get into Leo you have to pass an in-person interview and want to be part of a brotherhood. Tuition at Leo is $7,500. If a parent volunteers two hours a week, $2,500 is knocked off, and 90 percent of the kids who attend Leo get financial aid from white alums.
“They understand someone is making a sacrifice to send them here,” McGrath said.
Which goes in line with the school motto, “Deeds not words.”
But over the past couple year’s enrollment has declined. Leo had 122 total kids in 2010. Part of the reason was the lack of transportation. In that year, an old bus was mysteriously lit on fire, McGrath said. This year Leo purchased two new buses to help transport the kids to and from school, which will help reach more students. The buses were even blessed by Cardinal Francis George in a ceremony on Oct.28.
The Lions dominated the Catholic league from the 1930s through the 1960s and have produced multiple NFL players. Leo is also known for its traditional success in other sports. Like track, in which it has won eight state championships, or basketball where they have one state championship and produced multiple McDonald’s All-Americans, like Tony Parker’s dad, Tony Parker Sr. But that’s not the only reason kids come to Leo.
Take Leo senior running back and track star Theodore Hopkins as proof. In eighth grade, Hopkins was ranked the second-best track athlete and one of the most heralded running backs in Chicago. But Hopkins didn’t want to attend the best football school, he wanted something more.
“When I was in the 8th grade I was heavily recruited and a big shot. But the head coach told me that’s not happening here. He told me if my grades weren’t up to snuff I wouldn’t play. That’s what got my mom and dad; Leo guaranteed me that, and I liked how small it was everyone knew each other. I knew they cared about my good fortune. But most of all I loved the family aspect like our motto says, fight to the left, right and center of your brother,” Hopkins said.
The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Hopkins may be listed as an average sized athlete, but in person he’s one of the most jacked running backs you’ll ever see for an 18-year-old.
Hopkins has the biggest biceps on the team and calves that would turn Michael Johnson’s head. And he’s lived up to the team motto, running to the left, right and center of defenses all season. On only 61 carries he’s rushed for 583 yards, an astounding average of almost ten yards a rush for eight touchdowns. He also has 12 total touchdowns on the year and accounting for 815 yards in a limiting role in the Leo offense. He plays both ways as a safety for the Lions, since they only have 33 kids on the team. He’s racked up absurd numbers in the process- 43 tackles, four picks, one caused fumble and two fumble recoveries, and spearheaded the Lions to a 7-2 regular season record. All reasons why all the coaches in the league voted him the winner of the Lawless award, annually given to the most valuable player in the Catholic League.
He’s also been tearing the rubber on the track, he was second leg for the 4x100 track team that won two consecutive 1A track and field championships, placed sixth in the 100 meter dash in the state championship last year, and poised in his last year to garner one more state championship. Hopkins also has one of the top eight GPAs in his senior class.
Head football coach Holmes knows his worth to the team.
“We could make him our feature back and run him 20 to 30 times a game, but he understands it’s for the better of the team. He does it all, he has the skill, speed, size and strength. He has so many dimensions. He’s different from any other player I’ve coached, he’s dedicated to the game, he’s an amazing student of the game. He coaches our quarterback, Latrell, on the field, he’s the coach on that field. It helps calm everyone else out there and makes others want to step up because of his leadership, and better than anything he’s an overall great human being.” Holmes said.
Junior quarterback Latrell Giles, who also starts on the basketball team, and the co-leader of the offense this year, echoes Holmes praises.
“Ever since my freshman year, Theodore has been my mentor. When I’m messing up on the field he tells me what to do and calms me down.” Giles said.
Premiere Division I football programs such as Michigan State, Illinois, Central Michigan and Eastern Illinois have all taken notice of Hopkins talents. But to Hopkins, his college football choice takes a backseat to his current team’s goal.
“Of course I think about colleges, but my main focus is Leo High School trying to win a state championship,” Hopkins said.
McGrath knows the team’s success isn’t due to one man, it’s about the unique makeup and character of the team.
“It all starts with the kids. We’re fortunate most of them are seniors and juniors. But these guys are bonded together; there’s no ego or selfishness on this team, and you have to have that to have success,” McGrath said.
Now, only four games stand between the Lions and their first state championship.
A decade ago the diocese deemed the neighborhood Leo is in too unsafe and tried to move the school, but McGrath remembered what Leo stood for.
“The diocese wanted us to move, but when we were founded in 1926 we used to be an inner city school. The old president, Bob Foster, here once told me, ‘The demographics might change but the mission doesn’t change.’”