Lamar Johnson, 17, lives in Englewood and is a senior at Crane Tech, a west-side high school, where he was captain of the football team and is a star wrestler. It’s only his third year at Crane, but he’ll graduate in June in part because of the high school credits he earned in a summer Upward Bound program. Crane Tech is closing in 2015, and now has fewer than 150 students.
Interview by Steve Bogira
Photographs by John Sturdy
I was a bad little kid. I hung around with a bad crowd, and I got influenced a lot. But my mom and my dad stayed on my case with every little thing I did, and that’s what made me stay on track.
I took an Upward Bound program at Northeastern the summer after eighth grade. I’m not going to lie—what really made me get into the program was that the man who came to our school said we’d get a stipend check after we finished. I had to take a bus and train to the north side. My mom and dad were on me like white on rice—my mom woke me up at five o’clock every morning, “C’mon, get dressed, you gotta go to school.”
That program completely changed my life around. We was taking college classes, and the work was hard, but I was still getting A’s. I was like, “Man, I can actually do this.” People can say you can do stuff, but when you see it for yourself, it’s different.
I never had dreams about being a football player. But when I graduated out of eighth grade, me and my dad had a heart-to-heart conversation. He said he saw the athlete in me. He played football at Crane, and he said he knew some good coaches here.
My dad loved Crane. He used to tell me stories about it—about how the football team was so spectacular. This is a huge school, they can fit 2,000 kids, and he told me the school was packed back then. It was 120 guys trying out for varsity! They had to limit that down to 55.
When I got here it was only about 500 kids in the school, and they was going through the phases of closing the school down. That made it hard, ’cause there wasn’t a lot of guys that wanted to play football. The team was kinda shaky, they weren’t winning no games. My dad told me to keep up the legacy. So I gathered up all the players I could—“Come and play football with us.” That’s how we got our team. Now we’re like a family. That’s our motto: One team, one family.
Our coaches put that in our mind-set, because we don’t have Catholic school numbers. You go to them Catholic schools, they have like 50 guys on their football teams. We got 20, 22. He said, “No matter how many guys you have on the field, if you have a family on the field, they can win games.”
A coach told me that wrestling and football go hand in hand—that if you do wrestling, it’s going to help you with conditioning, with technique. For the first four matches, I was losing. I didn’t know what I was doing. He was like, “You ain’t got no passion about it.” That night I got on YouTube, looked up wrestlers, watched WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment], and I got a passion about it. And that’s when I started winning. Last year I qualified for state, but I didn’t get to go. Something about paperwork.
I’m glad I’m doing sports because I don’t have time to goof around and get in trouble. I live on the other side of the city, in Englewood, so I have to get up at five o’clock. I take the 63rd Street bus to Western, and the Western bus to Jackson. After school I have practice till six o’clock. By the time I get home it’s eight o’clock. Then I have to do all my homework. That don’t give me much time to sleep.
In football I play both offense and defense, but my main position is defensive tackle. I’m talking to a couple of colleges right now: Alabama, Eastern Illinois, Nebraska, Augustana, and Lake Forest. I never heard of Lake Forest before. I looked it up on the computer. I looked at their football players. All I seen is white guys.
I didn’t know how I felt about that. I ain’t got nothing against white people, but I’m used to having a little color around me. I don’t want to say anything that offends them. They probably don’t listen to the music that I listen to. But I have a couple of white friends, and they act just like me, they listen to the same stuff I do. So I’ll probably find some type of group.
If their football team is anything like our football team, we’ll all be a brotherhood. We’re all going to be one family. If it’s a lot of white guys on the football field, then I’m just a brother from another mother. If they’re anything like our team, then I’m going to be OK.
I feel like I need to go to college—because if I do, it’s gonna make my little brothers want to go to college. And if they go to college, it’s going to make my little sister go to college. And once they graduate, their kids are going to go to college, my kids will go to college. It’ll start up a whole new generation for our family, because none of our family went to college. It feels like I could actually make a change, so I try to stay on track. You don’t want to mess up because that could start a chain reaction.
I’m not scared about college. I feel like if I go in there and do my best, then it’s going be a good outcome. Math, English, and reading I’m really good at. Comes to science, I feel like I got the brain size of a peanut. When I took the ACT last year, that was my lowest score. I eat lunch in class and my science teacher teaches me how to read graphs and comprehend better, so I can score better this time.
I got a wandering mind. I be sitting there thinking, what’s the answer to question 11, and the next minute I’m thinking about cheeseburgers.
Englewood is troublesome. I mostly stay in the house. The bus stop is right out my front door. I get on the bus, don’t talk to nobody, don’t look at nobody. I feel like the guys, the way their ego goes, they’re going to see me and think, Man, if I beat a big guy, I could beat anybody. And I’m a big target—if they get to shooting, the big person’s going to get hit first. It’s not a scared thing, I’m just trying to stay safe. I got a lot to live for.
I did not see a lot of diversity at Crane. There’s probably one or two Hispanic guys. White kids? None. When we go off to college, we’re not going to be used to being around different cultures. You like to be cool with everybody so you can go anywhere you want, you know how to talk with everybody.
A lot of teachers here had to teach two different types of classes—like English first period and science second period—’cause they couldn’t hire enough teachers. Man, that’s crazy. But for the school to get more money they have to have a high attendance rate.
I still feel like Crane was a good choice for me. I made a lot of friends and I accomplished a lot. I actually love this school. One thing that makes me sad is when I do leave here, I’m not going to be able to come back and say hi to my teachers, because they’re going to be gone. ●