In a dimly lit parking lot Friday night, with bags and suitcases sprawled on the ground and the loud, clanking sound of a bus engine rattling in their ears, 45 football players from a high school in one of Chicago‘s toughest areas shed their shoulder pads, removed their blue helmets and abandoned their sparkling clean white jerseys while trying to make sense of their latest challenge.
A game two years in the making, far away from the gun violence and poverty they deal with back home, had been postponed when power went out at Santa Barbara City College.
The football team from Chicago Hope Academy had traveled 4½ hours by plane to Los Angeles from Chicago’s West Side on Wednesday, then rode two hours on a bus to Santa Barbara, arriving past midnight. They stayed two nights at a hotel and were scheduled to spend the final two nights of their journey with 16 host families after Friday’s game against Bishop Diego High.
Now the teams would play Saturday morning, in place of a junior varsity game that had been planned.
“Logistically, it’s been nightmarish,” Hope coach Chris Mallette said.
It was awkward enough for host families to take in strangers they briefly met the night before when the teams gathered for dinner. Now the Hope coaches were frantically changing sleeping assignments, trying to keep their starters together.
Meanwhile, the two wisecracking 61-year-olds responsible for setting up the game were jovial.
Bob Muzikowski, founder and president of Hope, recited the Serenity Prayer in the parking lot:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
Mick Luckhurst, the special-teams coach for Bishop Diego, said: “You couldn’t have scripted it better. We wanted to get them to know each other. It’s the mysterious way of life.”
It’s Thursday morning and Hope is holding a final walk-through on Bishop Diego’s grass athletic field while classes are in session. The players, each wearing blue T-shirts with the word “Serve” on the back, gather around Luckhurst, a former Atlanta Falcons kicker who conceived with Muzikowski the idea of bringing the teams together.
The men have known each other since meeting in their mid-20s at a ministry in Bolivia trying to help orphans. For the last two years, they’ve tried to “make this amazing dream,” as Luckhurst describes it, come true.
Muzikowski was the inspiration for the 2001 movie “Hardball” in which Keanu Reeves plays a Little League coach from the Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago. Muzikowski says he is on a first-name basis with Barack Obama, whom he calls Barry, and Mark Walter, managing partner of the Dodgers. Both are supporters of Chicago Hope.
Luckhurst retired from the NFL at 29 and became an NFL commentator in his native England. He wrote a column for the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph — under different names, he says — and made more money than in his final season in the NFL.
“Welcome,” Luckhurst tells the players in his British accent. “It’s not just about football. Once you’re between the lines, you can play hard and still hit. But it’s what happens outside the lines that’s really cool for me. We’re in a little bit different environment than you are in Chicago. We feel blessed to be in this environment and to share this with you.”
Muzikowski tells the players, “Let’s knock them down and help them up.”
Luckhust explains the philosophy he’s hoping everyone adopts: “I’m not trying to beat you. I’m trying to be the best I can be. I hope we take that onto the field. And we take it in life.”
More than half of Hope’s players had never flown on a plane. There was a distinctive ‘Wow!’ heard in the back of their Southwest Airlines flight when it took off from Chicago Midway International Airport, according to players.
“My teammates were telling me I would be scared,” quarterback Trevor Land said. “I enjoyed the takeoff and landing because it was like a roller coaster.”
Players and coaches talked about seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time.
“I’m going to take my shirt off,” receiver Neil Campbell said.
Said Land: “I’m not really big on water, but I’ll probably dip my feet in.”
Assistant coach Charles Perry didn’t know when he was going to take a swim — only that it was going to happen no matter what.
“I will swim in the Pacific Ocean before I leave,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what time or how cold. I just need a picture with me in it.”
Chicago Hope, a nondenominational coed Christian school of 287 in the Near West Side, opened in the fall of 2005 on the former grounds of a Catholic parish. It’s located in one of the most crime-plagued of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods. Two years ago, there was a shooting outside the school’s stadium and the teams forfeited rather than play there. Two weeks ago, there was another shooting near the school, which is adjacent to a homeless center.
Muzikowski’s mission is to prepare his students for adulthood and teach Christian values. He said there are no locks on school lockers.
“If there’s anything stolen, I have to pay for it,” he said.
More than 95% of the players on the football team are African American. Most are on scholarship.
Bishop Diego, which has a picturesque campus about four miles west of Old Mission Santa Barbara, is a Catholic school of 260 boys and girls with tuition of $15,000.
“I hope to realize the different lives people may have in this country and how it affects them,” Bishop Diego receiver Luc Maho said. “And hope I can learn from this experience and become better and more understanding person of different cultures.”
The Maho triplets all play football. They took two Hope players to In-N-Out on Friday night and treated them to their mother’s French toast casserole Saturday morning.
Bishop Diego’s Marcus Chan had four players spend two nights at his home.
“I just want to learn about their background and story and what Chicago is like, and how it’s different than Santa Barbara,” he said. “With the barbecues and team meals, it’s going to be able to expand our knowledge who they are, not only as players but people.”
On Thursday afternoon, the Hope players took a city tour on bus trolleys.
“I was excited to see California palm trees,” Land said.
During his college days at the University of California, Luckhurst remembers hitchhiking through Santa Barbara. It made a lasting impression for its beauty and peacefulness.
Thirteen years ago, he and his wife, Ruth, purchased an estate located down a winding road. It had a nearly one-acre backyard for his three young boys. He created a playground with a pool, tennis court, ping-pong table, batting cage, basketball court, all-weather soccer/football field, trampoline and, most notably for a kicker, goal posts. (You can practice your extra points but have to go through a gate to retrieve balls when they travel beyond the fence because there’s no net.)
When Hope players arrived Thursday night, the expressions on their faces were priceless as they explored the backyard.
“Da Bomb,” said a Hope coach.
Soon, basketballs were being dribbled, soccer balls were being kicked, skateboards were being ridden, footballs were being thrown and the trampoline was vibrating. As Bishop Diego players and parents started arriving, there were handshakes and tentative introductions, but few interactions.
Then Luckhurst, wearing a Hope polo shirt — Muzikowski wore a Bishop Diego shirt — had all the Hope players gather under a “Welcome Chicago Hope Football” sign attached to two palm trees next to the pool. He called out names of the players and their host families. Everyone began to dine on tacos and hot dogs. Soon, players were looking at each other’s cell phones, asking about the “L” train and inquiring how far they lived from school.
“They’re strangers right now, but who knows?” Karen Regan, Bishop Diego’s head of school, told the families. “They might become lifelong friends.”
Luckhurst, looking at his more than 100 guests filling his immaculate backyard, said, “Dare to dream that anything is possible.”
High school football teams have been traveling more frequently in recent years. Teams from the Los Angeles area have played in Hawaii, Washington, New Jersey, Arizona and Washington, D.C. This trip seemed different. Hope and Bishop Diego were determined to make it about more than a game.
“The beautiful thing about high school football is it’s pure Americana,” said Mallette, the Hope coach. “A family and player in Santa Barbara can have an immediate connection with a player on the West Side of Chicago because they’ve done summer camps together, they’ve done drills together, they scrimmage together, they’ve had that camaraderie in the locker room together, and they deal with the same stuff.”
On Friday afternoon, the teams got together at Bishop Diego’s lunch tables for a meal of tri-tip, chicken, salad and homemade chocolate chip cookies. The coaches were in uncharted territory, having never hung out with an opposing team before a game.
“There’s nothing ordinary about this at all,” Mallette said.
The teams stood awkwardly apart until Bishop Diego coach Tom Crawford suggested the players from his team, serving as hosts, get together with the Hope players. That broke the uncertainty, producing handshakes and lots of talking and eating.
Luckhurst has two sons playing for Bishop Diego. Adam, a senior, is the kicker. Michael, a sophomore, is the quarterback. Three of Hope’s defensive ends were staying at his house Friday and Saturday.
With gentle waves hitting the white sand of Leadbetter Beach across the street, and seagulls looking for crumbs in the bleachers, the teams were ready to play football Friday night at Santa Barbara City College.
Except nothing went right. Chicago Hope’s bus showed up 90 minutes late. Then, just past 6 p.m., power went out in the stadium.
By 7:30 p.m., officials postponed the game because everything was dark except for ambient lighting in the parking lot.
Frustration could be seen on the faces of Hope players as they left the field.
“This is completely beyond our control,” Mallette told the players. “It’s another test, another distraction.”
Directed by security to the parking lot, players gathered their personal belongings from the bus and went off into the night with their host families. They were told to meet at 8:15 Saturday morning at Bishop Diego to take a bus back to the college, where they’d play their game at 11 a.m., power or not. A barbecue on the beach across the street would follow.
“When you face adversity, you have to stay focused,” receiver Campbell said in the darkness. “Think positive. We’re going to come back tomorrow.”
Luckhurst took in 19 players at his home.
“Uber eats,” he said of his snack plans for the guests.
In the darkness, amid the uncertainty, Hope defensive back Carlos Feliciano said, “This sure is life.”
On a spectacular Saturday morning, on a junior college field with a view of the Pacific Ocean, the teams finally played a football game.
“Everything is perfect,” Luckhurst said. “God is providing the lights.”
Of course, sports often doesn’t cooperate in keeping things perfect.
After making a 51-yard field-goal try that was taken away because of a penalty, the son of the coach with a field-goal post in his backyard missed an extra-point try, and Hope, on a PAT after a touchdown reception by Campbell, won 7-6.
You wonder, though, years from now, will many of the participants really remember the score?