News & Politics » Miscellany

Blood, Sweat, and Cheers

For three decades, Roy Curry's Robeson High football teams showed bigger and better-funded teams how to play the game.



By Patrick Z. McGavin

On a witheringly hot September afternoon in 1993, the football varsity of Paul Robeson High School boarded the team bus in Englewood for the drive to Gately Stadium, at 103rd and Cottage Grove, and a game against Gordon Tech. The schools had long been rivals, and in 1990 met in the Prep Bowl--the city championship pitting the top teams of the Public and Catholic leagues. Robeson won that game 8-7 when star halfback Damion Henderson caught a pass in the flat and outran the Gordon Tech defenders for a 75-yard touchdown.

The enrollment at Robeson had been declining for years, and by now coach Roy Curry had few players to work with. When he began coaching in the late 60s, the population of the school--then called Parker High--exceeded 1,800, and Curry always had at least 40 players on his early teams. But this varsity had 18. With 11 players required on each side of the ball, there weren't enough for a full scrimmage. Typically in practice the backs alternated between running on the right and left sides of the line, and the defensive linemen shifted accordingly.

Few of his players platooned, and their small numbers forced fundamental changes in how Curry prepared them. Most teams separate their players by position, offense and defense, special teams, linemen, and skill players--the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers. Curry put everybody through the same drills. Even the linemen would go out on pass routes. On this afternoon in 1993, Curry got to the bus and noticed immediately that his best two-way player, an offensive guard and linebacker, wasn't there. A hard-liner on punctuality and structure, Curry told the bus driver to leave without him.

Robeson was already on the field when the Gordon Tech players and coach Tom Winiecki emerged from the visitors' locker room. Winiecki and Curry, who are good friends, met near midfield, and the Gordon Tech coach noted the scarcity of Robeson players.

"Where's the rest of your team?" Winiecki wondered.

"This is it. This is all I've got," Curry said.

"You can't play with that many kids in this kind of weather."

"We got to play. I don't have any other choice."

A few moments before the game began, Curry and his two assistant coaches assembled his team inside the locker room for a final talk. Curry spotted his errant lineman and told him to go outside and warm up.

Robeson's team wasn't just small in numbers; the players were physically small, the offensive linemen the size of typical running backs. But Robeson teams have always compensated with hard, tenacious play. The trademark of a Roy Curry team was always its aggressiveness, its willingness to fight to the very end, regardless of the score.

Curry was a pretty good football player himself, an all-American quarterback at Jackson State who played professionally in the early 60s. His Robeson teams were known for their sophisticated and innovative passing attack. "Their passing game was excellent," Winiecki says today. "He gets the kids to listen to him. He'd show you a lot of different formations, kids who ran good, disciplined routes, a pro-type offense."

Gordon Tech enjoyed a brilliant tradition, excellent coaching, close to 60 players on its roster, and a size advantage at every position against Robeson. But it couldn't generate any offense. Robeson's quickness, speed, and aggression continually thwarted the Rams' ability to move the ball. Winiecki figured the Robeson players couldn't possibly maintain their intensity in the blinding heat, but he was wrong. Despite sending in waves of players, Gordon Tech failed to wear Robeson down. Curry and his Raiders walked out of Gately Stadium the winners of a 6-0 game.

"It just seemed all the breaks went our way that day," Curry recalls.

The breaks always seemed to follow a Roy Curry-coached team. It was as if Curry willed his teams to victory. Curry is a pioneer, the only Public League football coach ever to guide his team to a state championship game since that format was adopted in 1974. He coached 313 games at Robeson since taking over the program in 1969, and his teams won 240 of them. He averaged eight wins a year and repeatedly qualified for the city and state playoffs, but rarely had more than 20 players on his roster. Curry says 75 percent of Robeson's students are in families headed by a single parent, and most of his players have been special-education or learning-disabled students who required constant preparation, rehearsal, and practice to grasp his complex offensive and defensive schemes. He has repeatedly turned down suburban and even college jobs to remain at the south-side school. When one such job materialized a couple of years ago, Curry thought hard about it but then asked his other coaches, "If I leave these kids, who's going to take care of them?"

Having turned 60 last November, Curry announced in January that he was retiring from coaching to accept a new position in the physical health services department of the Chicago Public Schools. Based at Julian High School, he'll be developing an elementary school program and youth leagues in an effort to improve the fundamentals of public school players and expose them to football at an earlier age. He wants to function as a coach at large, helping out programs at practices and dispensing the wisdom of a life spent in the trenches. He'll also be supervising clinics and workshops, helping historically struggling schools to elevate their programs. He says he wants to help the Public League schools compete better with the Catholic and suburban powers.

Curry says the job developed out of conversations he'd been having with J.W. Smith, the Public League sports supervisor and a former football coach at Julian. "You always know when it's time to make a change," he says, sitting in his office at Robeson, where he's doubled as track coach and tripled as dean of student discipline. "I know I'm not ready to retire from football. I'm ready to work in some capacity." The conversation is interrupted by a young smiling girl who asks for the Mace that a security guard had confiscated and given to Curry to hold. "This job carries a lot of weight," Curry says. "You have to be ready for this job, especially in the inner city. Because you have the same kids having the same problems all the time. You got to be on top of it."

An hour later, one of Curry's players approaches him in the hallway. Curry engages him in small talk, calling him by his nickname, "Spare," telling him to stop causing one of his teachers trouble. "I didn't do anything, coach," Spare protests. Curry looks at the player with both affection and a clear sense of disapproval. "I told her that's not in your character," Curry says.

Mickey Pruitt says the key to Curry is the way he manages to get the respect of his players. Pruitt was the star running back and linebacker on the 1982 team, which played for the state title. He's the only player Curry coached to reach the National Football League, playing three years with the Bears before going on to Dallas, where he was a member of the 1992 Super Bowl champions. Pruitt says of Curry, "If you know the guys he has to work with, they come from an area where they don't have respect for a lot of people, especially adults."

Among Chicago's prep football coaches, Curry's name evokes praise, admiration, and awe. "He's got standards. He's hung tough all the time. He never jeopardized his principles. He never backed away from anybody. He always played some of the toughest games around," says Winiecki. Gary Korhonen, coach of Richards, an Oak Lawn school whose football teams are perennially ranked high, says simply, "Roy Curry is my hero. I hold Roy in the highest esteem. He exemplifies what coaching is all about. He has situations and circumstances the rest of us don't have--adverse things--that he has to fight against. He's a first-class gentleman. I think he's as good a coach as there is in the state of Illinois."

Glenn Johnson calls Curry "probably one of the greatest coaches that ever coached the game." Johnson has shaped top city programs at South Shore and Dunbar. He knows firsthand the devastating impact of gangs, drugs, and poverty on extracurricular activities such as football. "I've modeled the team after Coach Curry," Johnson says. "He knows his football in and out, concepts and philosophies on both sides of the ball. He's second to none in getting the most out of the kids. Having 18 to 19 [players], that's unheard of. He's unselfish, he always has time for you. If you pass through life, if you haven't been touched by Roy Curry, you've missed something."

Elton Harris is Curry's most prominent protege, a defensive back who graduated from Robeson in 1978, worked at the Board of Trade after college, and left to join Curry's coaching staff in 1987. In 1994 Harris took over a struggling program at Hubbard High School on the southwest side. He's transformed Hubbard into the reigning city power, winner of the last two Prep Bowl championships. Harris says he would never have been a coach if not for Curry. "To me, he's like my father," says Harris. "Going up against him, it was like coaching against Eddie Robinson, Knute Rockne, or Bear Bryant. My first year he put it on me really good. I learned from that."

A couple of days after announcing his retirement from coaching, Roy Curry was watching the Super Bowl. He couldn't contain his enthusiasm. Quarterbacking the Tennessee Titans was Alcorn State's Steve McNair, a black man from the south who'd broken records playing against the same schools Curry dueled in the early 60s. "Man, I'm just watching Air McNair and how he's running the ball and that was really reminiscent of how I used to play," he says later. "I still feel like I got the fire in me, still be running the ball like Air McNair, and then I also have the fire in me to still coach. I love that Friday, Thursday, Sunday, whenever you play, that charge you get. I've been fortunate enough to have a good winning percentage, over 70 percent, so I'm winning more games than I'm losing. That feeling you get when you win, when you outprepare the other coach, your kids play well enough to win the ball game, I know I'm going to miss that."

Curry was born in November 1939 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the youngest of six children. His father was a sharecropper, his mother a schoolteacher. He never wanted to work the fields, so beginning his sophomore year in high school he spent his summers in Chicago, where two sisters and a brother had already settled. He worked as a busboy, saving his tips and bringing them home to his parents. He was well built and tall, and fast and fluid. He became the quarterback of his high school football team, the best player on the basketball team, and the first athlete to win four varsity letters in one school year--in football, basketball, baseball, and track. "My father worked the fields all the time," he says. "My mother was a wonderful lady, a beautiful lady, very bright, but there just wasn't any money to be made. I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship, otherwise I probably wouldn't have gone to college."

Because black athletes still weren't welcome at the big southern state universities, Curry accepted a scholarship to Jackson State (Walter Payton would play there in the 70s) and led them to conference championships in 1961 and 1962. As a junior quarterback, Curry led his team in rushing. As a senior he was one of the best players in the country, third in the nation in total yardage from the line of scrimmage. He completed 104 passes in 194 attempts for 1,862 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushed for another 140 yards. He was twice named a black all-American by the Pittsburgh Courier, and he was also named to the small-school all-American team. In both his junior and senior seasons Curry's teams earned a berth in the Orange Blossom Classic in Miami. Jackson State lost a total of three games in the two years.

"You look at a team now like Florida State. We were the Florida State back in that time, that's how great we were." Curry says 24 of the Jackson State players his senior year eventually played pro ball, the most prominent being Willie Richardson, an all-pro defensive end with the Baltimore Colts. The Florida A&M team Jackson State played both years in the Orange Blossom Classic was also loaded with talent--the entire backfield would play in the National Football League. The team's most dangerous weapon was Bob Hayes, the sprinter who'd win three gold medals at the 1964 Olympics and go on to star with the Dallas Cowboys. "They also had Bob Perrymore, who played with the Saint Louis Cardinals, and Bobby Phelps, who played with the New York Giants. The wide receiver on their team was Al Denson, who played with the Denver Broncos. They were outstanding," Curry says.

He says Jackson State was completely unprepared for the magnitude of the two games in Miami. "We used to play in front of eight, maybe ten thousand people at our games. We go down to Miami and there were 63,000 people there. The first year [1961], they beat us 14-8. We won 22-6 my senior year." It was his last college game, and Curry was named most valuable player. A black group in Atlanta that called itself the 100 Percent Wrong Club and was dedicated to highlighting black achievement ignored by mainstream media named Curry its collegiate athlete of the year.

Pittsburgh selected Curry in the 12th round of the 1963 NFL draft. At the time, good black college quarterbacks who wanted to play in the NFL let themselves be converted to running back, wide receiver, or defensive back. "Even in Division I [the largest universities], there were only two black quarterbacks. You had a guy named Sandy Stephens and one other guy. Only two of us got drafted. Sandy ended up going to Montreal--he played Canadian ball. My dream was always to play in the NFL. I went to the Steelers, so I accepted being a wide receiver," Curry says.

Race was very much a part of the game. There were only 14 NFL franchises at the time, less than half the number today. As author David Maraniss points out in his new biography of Vince Lombardi, some programs, especially those in southern cities such as Washington, refused to integrate their teams. Black players were ostracized, often denied housing and the opportunity to eat at the same restaurants as their white teammates. It was never acknowledged publicly, but Curry says all black players were aware of strict racial quotas. "Most teams wouldn't carry more than six blacks on a 40-man roster. Of course, you didn't worry too much about making the 40-man roster. You had to make the six blacks. That year we probably had about 15 blacks. We knew only six of us was going to stay."

In 1963 Curry played in 6 of the Steelers' 14 regular-season games as a wide receiver and kick returner. His touchdown on a 31-yard pass against the Bears gave the Steelers a 17-17 tie. Pittsburgh's last game was a 33-19 loss to the Giants in New York. "The coldest game I ever played in," Curry says. "I looked up at the thermometer, it would flash between zero and one degree." (The Bears defeated the Giants in Wrigley Field for the 1963 championship.)

Because he'd left Jackson State a few credits short of graduation, he returned during the off-season to get his degree. He asked a young student named Carolyn Jamison to help him with a philosophy paper. She'd grown up in Jackson and was three years behind Curry, and she remembers him as an icon there with the reputation of a lady-killer. When the paper was done he asked how much he owed her. "I said, 'I'm a southern girl. We help each other out,'" she remembers. So he took her to the movies. "I didn't want to be alone with him. But I couldn't get over how really nice he was. From there, we just started going out," she says.

Curry's football future appeared bright. Pittsburgh's media guide extolled his skills and predicted, "He could be a star in the National Football League." But Curry reported to summer camp in 1964 still recovering from a pulled left hamstring that affected his performance. He says coach Buddy Parker became impatient with him and cut him at the end of the exhibition season. "It was very difficult to get hurt and make a team," he says. "Of course the medical care wasn't nearly as good as it is now. It was just one of those things. It was a numbers game. I healed up just enough for [Parker] to release me."

Curry hooked up with the Bears for their 1965 training camp. Owner and coach George Halas liked him enough to assign him to the "taxi squad," a group of players who practice with the team but aren't eligible to play in games. Curry refused the assignment.

"I've always said that was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made, not going on the taxi squad," he says. "During a warm-up, Jimmy Jones, a wide receiver, broke his collarbone, and the person that [Halas] put on the taxi squad took his place and played the rest of the season. I would have been activated and played that year. I had a little pride in myself, and thought I deserved to be on the regular 40-man roster." The following year Curry returned to camp, but the Bears released him outright.

It almost didn't matter that his professional football career was over. Along with three sisters and a brother, Curry was now living in Chicago. That December he and Carolyn married, and in 1968 he made the first of several difficult decisions to remain here. Jackson State asked him to come back as offensive coordinator. "It was a done deal," he says, "but my wife and I were just settled here. They weren't paying much money in Mississippi then."

In the fall of 1966 Curry worked at Dunbar as a substitute teacher and helped out with the football team. The Public League then had three divisions--red, white, and blue--the red teams, typically representing schools with the largest enrollments and strongest football heritages, being the strongest. The only way for a team to move up from blue to white, or from white to red, was to win its citywide division championship two consecutive years. In 1967 Curry accepted a teaching and coaching position at Parker, a school mired in the blue division. Curry was the assistant coach for two years and was named head coach in 1969. He won one game his first year. "The powerhouse teams then were Phillips, CVS, Lane Tech, Fenger, and Morgan Park. Taft also had some good teams back in that time," Curry says.

Curry built his Parker teams into his own image--tough, aggressive, and relentless. Parker won two consecutive blue division titles and moved to the white division in 1971. Parker was benefiting then from population growth in and around Englewood. Chicago State and Kennedy-King Junior College now had campuses there. Enrollment grew to more than 2,000 students, and Curry saw a parallel increase in his teams' own numbers. By 1974 Curry had elevated his program to the highest level, the red division, and it's stayed there ever since. Beginning with that season, Curry won eight consecutive conference titles.

That same year, 1974, the Illinois High School Association introduced state football playoffs. There were five classes (a sixth class was added in 1980) determined by enrollment, with conference champions and a few at-large selections qualifying for the postseason. The immediate popularity of these playoffs threatened the status of the Prep Bowl as the most important football game of the year. The best Catholic teams, such as Mount Carmel and Gordon Tech, shifted their focus from winning the Prep Bowl to winning state, and Public League and Catholic schools eligible for the Prep Bowl would skip it if they were also in the state playoffs. The Prep Bowl had attracted capacity crowds to Soldier Field in the 50s and 60s, but its prestige waned. The game was becoming less competitive too, thanks to the decline of Public League football, which was weakened by shifting racial patterns and suburban migration, by dwindling resources, and by the rise of basketball as the city's preferred sport.

From the start, Public League teams were ill equipped to compete in state. Raw talent--if a school had it--couldn't overcome inferior facilities, fewer coaches, and a lack of feeder programs. J.W. Smith, whose Julian teams were considered some of the most talented ever to come out of the city, won a single state playoff game in his career, and that was against another city team. The teams Curry took into the playoffs had rosters a half or a third the size of the suburban and Catholic teams, and his kids had come to organized football years later than their opponents.

By 1977, when the Parker elementary school and high school were demolished and a new high school honoring Paul Robeson was built, Curry says, people were leaving Englewood in droves. Even Chicago State moved out. Though Parker's enrollment had approached 2,000 students a few years earlier, Robeson was built to accommodate only 1,500. Its current enrollment is 869.

In 1981 Robeson won its first city championship, but lost to Mount Carmel in the Prep Bowl, 12-6. In 1982 there were two great city teams, Robeson and Tilden. Curry had only 25 players but they were big and quick, spearheaded by Pruitt. Tilden and Robeson played to an overflow crowd at Stagg Stadium, at 74th and Morgan, for the section championship. Trailing 7-0, Robeson scored on a late touchdown but missed the two-point conversion. Getting the ball back, Curry's team drove the length of the field, but a Tilden defensive back deflected a pass in the end zone and the game ended with Robeson on Tilden's four-yard line.

Both schools entered the state 5A playoffs, Tilden as a conference champion, Robeson as an at-large qualifier. Tilden proved its legitimacy by beating Deerfield, the top-ranked, top-seeded team in the state, 27-21 in the first round of the playoffs. But Tilden lost to Antioch 30-20 in the quarterfinals. Robeson won its first two games easily over city teams by a combined score of 84-0. That set up a match with Antioch in Soldier Field. "Nobody thought we'd beat [Antioch]," Pruitt remembers. "Everybody was wondering who we were. After we lost to Tilden, it brought all of us together as a team. That was probably the best thing, because it gave us the confidence we could play with anybody."

Robeson beat Antioch 20-16 to advance to the state title game in Northwestern's Dyche Stadium against undefeated Rockford Guilford. Robeson jumped out to a 6-0 first-quarter lead when Jimmie Spraggins returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown. Rockford tied the game in the second quarter and went up 9-6 halfway through the third quarter with a field goal. But quarterback Tim Spencer engineered a scoring drive late in the third quarter, rolling out 11 yards for the touchdown that put Robeson up 12-9. Rockford was able to move the ball throughout the game but was constantly stymied in scoring position. Robeson had the lead and the ball with under three minutes to play when disaster struck.

Curry says he still thinks about the play and how it unfolded. "I remember it so well. Our left guard and left tackle were supposed to cross block, but they didn't cross. The linebacker was blitzing at that time. When Tim Spencer got ready to hand off to Mickey, the linebacker hit both of them at the same time and the ball came out. The play we were running was a counter, it was a delayed handoff, and [the linebacker] got into the backfield and made the play." Rockford Guilford recovered the fumble at the Robeson 38 with 2:35 left, drove the distance, and scored on a two-yard run with 45 seconds left. Curry's finest team lost the title game 16-12 and finished 11-2. Since that 1982 game, no Public League team has advanced beyond the quarterfinals.

"We had the game won," Curry says. "It just wasn't to be. We just didn't have any control." The next time Pruitt played in Soldier Field was his rookie season with the Bears. He returned a local hero, but, he says, "When I came to play, there it was in the paper that I fumbled." After leaving the NFL, Pruitt coached at the University of Colorado and the University of Hawaii. He returned to Chicago last year to work in the public schools' physical education department, coordinating the new freshman football program and helping Curry at Robeson. The team that turned out to be the coach's last had only 19 players and competed in the Public League's toughest conference, the Illini Southwest, but it finished the regular season 7-2 and qualified for the state playoffs, the 14th team in Curry's career to do so.

Curry's last team was blessed with one great player, Lionel Hickenbottom, a brilliant two-way performer who alternated among running back, quarterback, and defensive back. He was also a punter and placekicker, and he won two games, one of them in overtime, with field goals. He accepted a scholarship to Northern Illinois University. The rest of the talent was mediocre even by Robeson standards. Curry's genius, says Pruitt, was knowing how to squeeze the last drop out of Hickenbottom and otherwise get by. "Coach knows how to maximize their talent. When we go against bigger teams, he maximizes the speed he has on the team. He's a student of the game. That's what helps him out--he knows the other teams. That's a key when you don't have the numbers, you don't have the size. We had one player, really, this year, and coach used him in a way where he could perform and win games for Robeson. He knows how to convince kids they're better than they actually are."

Carolyn Curry says she and her husband are a good fit because they're opposites. "He's quiet, unassuming, he goes along, nothing bothers him. I'm a bundle of nerves all the time, I'm always in a hurry. I'm the community activist--he's the football coach. Everybody likes Roy." She says that when her husband is too aggressive about telling her what to do, she reminds him, "Stop coaching, Roy, stop coaching. I'm your wife." She says, "He has the spark of enthusiasm that you wouldn't believe. He always gave. He has an anger in him, a zest for those boys to achieve, because you know that they can. There's something--the good, bad, and the ugly--with these kids. I've seen him get so mad he almost breaks his hand when he taps one of the kids on the helmet." But she's also seen him help them become coaches, ministers, and teachers--one's in the FBI now. "Sometimes I think Roy is too good, it's almost frightening," says his wife.

Curry always insists that she attend the team banquet at the end of the season and entertain the players' mothers. "There are never any fathers, never," she says.

Roy Curry is a storyteller fond of Nordic myths. His favorite tale, which he's told before many a big game, concerns a Viking chieftain condemned to a pit full of ravenous animals. Aware that he's been sentenced to death, he requests a sword so that he will die still fighting. "These kids are tough--they have to be, coming out of this neighborhood and community. You got the kid here during the day for about eight hours--ten hours during the season--but he goes back to his environment and his environment is stronger than what you taught him here during the day. They do anything you say because they want to play sports, but once they leave they get back into the environment--it takes over. While they're here, they're learning, but they don't learn as well. They're so messed up in the mind on things that are going on in the community," he says.

"When we were in school," Elton Harris remembers, "he always made sure you were doing something when football wasn't going on--you were playing baseball, running track. He didn't give you the chance to get into trouble." Harris says he has taken onto himself his mentor's foremost characteristic--to be a tireless worker. "You go anywhere and they know who Coach Curry is," he says. "They ask you where you went to school, you say Robeson, and they say, 'That's Coach Curry's school.' Everybody knows Coach Curry."

Carolyn Curry says her husband is already going through withdrawal as he considers a life after coaching. Roy Curry is spending a couple of hours a week planning his new position, but he says he misses the regimen that occupied him for 30 years. At this point of the off-season he'd be organizing the conditioning and weight-lifting programs for his kids.

But he recognizes that he has been given not just a new position but a larger purpose, which is to impart his knowledge to the entire Public League. "Mr. Vallas is putting me here, and my job is to make sure that football is back where it used to be. We're going to do a lot to create a lot of interest. Sometimes I want to say football is almost a dying breed in this city," he says.

On April 20 Roy Curry and four other Jackson State alumni will be inducted into the school's sports Hall of Fame. On April 28 there will be a banquet at the Martinique in Evergreen Park commemorating his retirement from coaching. "We're heading in the right direction," he says. "Maybe two or three years from now we're going to be really powerful in the elementary leagues. Hopefully we'll see the fruits of that in the high schools. I can see that, I can actually visualize that in five or six years."

He pauses a moment when asked to consider his own legacy as a coach.

"The thing that's most satisfying is I did more with less. I never got as much material as the other schools in Chicago, but what I got I did more with it than anybody. I always want to be the person who took less talent and won probably more games than anybody else in the city. We outworked everybody," he says. "We took less and won more."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

Add a comment