Growing up in Kankakee, Tomele Staples and his friends grew tired of it.
In a smaller metro area just south enough of Chicago to be considered a suburb, seemingly the only time news from Kankakee made its way to a market large enough to carry TV news was when something tragic occurred or some new rankings system compiled new reasons why Kankakee isn’t a great place to live or raise a family.
Now a senior at Kankakee High School, Staples, the quarterback for the school’s football team, and his friends are making headlines for all the right reasons, as the Kays are set to play in their first IHSA football state championship in school history when they play Fenwick at 10 a.m. Saturday at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.
“The Kankakee community can be a divided community, with a lot of negative stuff going on; just for everyone to come together for one cause is really good, and to be part of the reason for that cause is even better,” Staples said. “That’s why a lot of people in our community are promoting all the good stuff going on with the football team.
“Everyone’s tired of the negative headlines associated with Kankakee and how anything negative is pushed to light,” he added. “Football has been something positive that everyone can get behind and that everyone is really excited about.”
The Kays are state-bound for the first time in football after knocking off Morton 41-14 at home in Saturday’s semifinal round. It improved their best-ever record to 13-0 in a season that has seen the team win its first Southland Athletic Conference title in program history and had several offensive and defensive players nearly rewrite the school’s individual record books.
Kankakee mayor Chris Curtis with some words for the Kays at today's pep rally. pic.twitter.com/etniHUrCzf— Mason Schweizer (@MSchweizerTDJS) November 23, 2021
And even when negativity and tragedy struck Kankakee again Friday night, when a shooting outside of the International Lounge left four people wounded just after midnight, the city stood behind their Kays and packed the stands to witness history Saturday.
And Kankakee Mayor Chris Curtis noted that the Kays’ monumental achievements on the gridiron have proved to be as vital to the community’s morale as much now as perhaps ever, noting the teamwork of an offense that has averaged 41.8 points per game and a defense that’s averaged 12.4 points per game.
“What was supposed to be a great weekend celebrating the football team unfortunately turned tragic with the shooting,” Curtis said. “That almost starts to overwhelm you, but when you see these kids do something inspiring like make it to state for the first time ever ... they’ve shed some light on what we can do and when we’re all together and on the same page, and that’s what they’ve done.”
The everyone Staples spoke of can be taken quite literally, as seemingly all of Kankakee County was on hand when the Kays topped Morton 41-14 in front of a jam-packed home crowd in last week’s semifinal round. Included in that crowd was Jimmy Smith, a 1983 graduate of Westview, the final year of the district’s split high schools — Westview and Eastridge.
Smith starred at Purdue and had a brief NFL career after his days as a Kayhawk. Now, along with his wife, Darice, Smith operates We Stand for Christ Jesus Ministries in Kankakee, said that when the Eastside Bulldogs youth football program had its postseason banquet earlier this year, several members of the Kays football team made their impact felt off the field the same way they do on it.
“Some of the things the kids said, us adults couldn’t have said it better,” Smith said. “There were six to eight players there, and when the kids hear from other younger people, the same words we say, when they say it, it impacts them more.”
“I was really impressed with their maturity.”
That maturity is something head football coach Derek Hart saw with this group when he took over three years ago. When the Indiana native moved to Kankakee, he was coming in to a city that is largely only associated with the negative contents of it.
But as someone who spent his own high school days in a place with a rough perception — the east side of Indianapolis — where he won the second of his two football state titles as a player at Warren Central High School, Hart knew that the community he was coming into had much more to offer than its perception.
“Kankakee gets this perception that the kids are bad and the community is bad, but it was an easy adjustment for me,” Hart said. “I came from a high school where that’s the perception. The east side of Indianapolis has a dark cloud over it, but once you get to know the kids they’re great kids like from anywhere else, and it’s real easy.”
Hart isn’t from the area, and neither is Kankakee athletic director Ronnie Wilcox, who is from the same southern Illinois town, Mt. Carmel, that Hart’s father, John, once coached football in. But Wilcox knows the power of sport, and he knows the power of community, and he especially knows how powerful the two can be when combined.
“I think it starts with just understanding the power of sports, no matter where you live, and impact it can have on one person, or the culture and climate of a school and the energy and excitement of a community,” Wilcox said. “As a sports person, and then a coach and athletic director you grasp that more, and at Kankakee it feels like an almost different level of a sports-hungry community.
“Trying to provide those opportunities to achieve what this team is doing, it’s why we do what we do.”
Harold Terrell has worked in the Kankakee School District for 39 years in several roles, most currently the assistant director of maintenance, and has been a presence for several of the high school sports program, as well as coaching at the middle school level.
But even Terrell hasn’t worked at the school since the last time there could have been something this monumental to happen within the high school’s athletic department.
“It’s one of the biggest historical achievements ... as far as team sports, I just think this has been the most fantastic team since maybe the 1952 [boys] basketball team that went to state,” Terrell said. “I’m just so proud of these boys and these coaches.”
And here's Kays coach Derek Hart with a quick but great speech. pic.twitter.com/Ka6a9mewBn— Mason Schweizer (@MSchweizerTDJS) November 23, 2021
With so much community sport and historical significance already achieved, this Kays team has already cemented its legacy at the high school and in the community.
And Wilcox believes the fact that they understand their importance is why they’ve accomplished what they have.
“What’s special to me about this football team is they fully understand that it’s way more than just about them ... they play for each other, they don’t care about the credit and they truly play for each other and this community,” Wilcox said. “And to see a group of young men, still teenagers, knowing great things can’t be achieved without that mindset, is inspiring.
“I’m just proud of how humble they’ve been and how they’ve embraced the fact they’re playing for something a lot bigger than themselves.”