An NFL head coach and a best-selling author. A young mayoral hopeful and a committed-to-the-truth street reporter.
All were among the speakers who visited Leo High School and interacted with the students during Black History month. Here’s a brief rundown of each presentation:
“Approach it as a partnership”
Before he begins full-scale preparations for his second season as Bears coach, Matt Eberflus told Bears Care Director Marge Hamm that he’d like to visit one of the organizations that partners with Bears Care in community-service projects.
Mrs. Hamm, a longtime friend to Leo, suggested Leo High School. Eberflus came on Friday, Feb. 24. In his talk and in the Q&A session that followed, he made a strong impression on the students with his candor and his easy, approachable demeanor.
“There are three things that I believe are essential to success in any endeavor,” Eberflus, 52, told an all-school assembly. “Be on time, be respectful and work hard, to the best of your ability. Commit to those three things and you’ll get results.”
A football player since the fourth grade, Eberflus said he always knew he wanted to coach, and he got into it immediately after graduating from the University of Toledo. He was a two-time All-Mid-America Conference linebacker, but he lacked the size and speed NFL teams require at the position.
“Nick Saban, the Hall of Famer, was our head coach my senior year, and even though I was only around him for a year, how he went about it really made an impression. He was a major influence. We still talk regularly.”
In Eberflus’ experience, the best coaches are those who approach the job as a partnership. “You’re not only trying to build a better player, you’re trying to build a better person—someone who can be all he can be,” he explained. “If you’re successful in that, you’ll build trust. And trust is essential to any relationship.”
Eberflus reminded the boys that progress toward one’s goals requires persistence and patience: He put in 30 years as an assistant at the college and pro levels before landing the Bears’ head-coaching job in January 2022. After a lengthy tenure as defensive coordinator at the University of Missouri, he moved to the NFL as linebackers coach with the Cleveland Browns. He later coached the Dallas Cowboys’ linebackers and was defensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts when the Bears hired him.
“I had six head-coaching interviews,” he said, “and then two offers: the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Bears. I chose the Bears. The history, the tradition, the McCaskey family, the city … It’s a great job, and there’s so much inspiration for wanting to do a great job.
“We didn’t get off to a great start (3-14), but we’re going to build something here that the fans can be proud of. I’m positive of that.”
“You’ll see yourselves in some of the characters”
Nick Brooks, whose second novel “Promise Boys” is a young-adult best-seller, visited Leo on Friday, Feb. 10 and discussed how the book came about at an all-school assembly.
The plot centers around the murder of the principal at Urban Promise, a Washington, D.C., charter school. Three students of color are immediately viewed as suspects because they had been resistant to the principal’s oppressive approach to discipline. It occurs to them that solving the crime is their best chance to avoid being charged with it.
Brooks told the Leo students he drew heavily on his six years as an inner-city educator in his native D.C. “I was researching the book and I didn’t know I was researching it,” he said. “Working and interacting with at-risk kids is where my knowledge and inspiration comes from. You’ll see yourselves in some of the characters.
“I saw too many incidents of teachers and staff trying to break down young men rather than build them up,” he added. “They seemed oblivious to the damage they were doing.”
Brooks said he considers himself a storyteller rather than simply an author. After he left teaching, he graduated from the University of Southern California’s TV and Film Production program and has produced and directed two short films, one of which, “Bee,” was honored at the American Black Film Festival.
He also produces and performs hip-hop music under the name Ben Kenobe.
Promise Boys, Brooks said, “is not just a murder mystery. There’s a strong social element to it. I’m trying to use art to create social change.”
Encouraged by his mother and some teachers to keep a journal recording what was going on around him, and how he felt about it, Brooks said he discovered early on that he wanted to be a writer. “And here I am, standing in front of you.”
He urged the Leo students to follow his example. “Whatever is in your heart, I want to encourage you to pursue it,” he said. “If I can do it, I believe anybody in this room can do it.”
The early buzz around Promise Boys has sparked interest among TV and film production companies, Brooks said. “Would any of you like a role in the movie?”
Every hand in the room shot up. It was pretty clear Nick Brooks had made an impression.
“Speak out … and seek solutions”
Ja’Mal Green, at 27 the youngest candidate in Chicago’s crowded mayoral race, visited Leo on Thursday, Feb. 16. He spoke to the journalism and social-studies classes.
Green grew up in Auburn Gresham, just east of Leo on 76th Street, and he knows the Leo story. He told the students he was their age or younger when he began his career as a community organizer/activist, and he’s been “stirring it up” ever since.
“If there’s a situation that bothers you or doesn’t seem fair, speak out—but also seek solutions,” he said. “When I found out Chase Bank was engaged in exclusionary lending practices, I went after them and kept after them. I was banned from every Chase branch in the city, probably the country. But eventually they agreed to provide a billion dollars in mortgage loans for underserved communities on the South and West Sides that they had purposely been neglecting.”
Green said he is not in favor of defunding the police, but he does support a reallocation of police funds to provide better mental health training for officers, since many of the offenders they encounter are dealing with mental health issues.
He said the overall city budget should be reconfigured to provide more affordable housing and an assurance of cleaner air and water. He believes lower property taxes would help halt the exodus of Chicago residents to the suburbs and beyond.
“Chicago has been and should be a great city, one of the world’s greatest,” he said. “When I’m elected—not if, but when—it will be once again.”
“Tell the stories of people in my city”
Glenn Marshall, street reporter for the WGN Morning News, addressed an all-school assembly at Leo on Thursday, Feb. 23.
Marshall, a native of Matteson, IL., graduated from Rich South High School and Northern Illinois University. He said he jumped at the chance to return to Chicago after previous career stops in Springfield, Boston and Atlanta.
“To be able to tell the stories of my people in my city … I couldn’t pass that up,” he told the students. “There are plenty of Black women, but you don’t see too many Black males on TV in this market. That’s one reason why I feel an obligation to do it well and get it right. I want to be an inspiration to young brothers like you.”
Marshall acknowledged encountering racism at certain junctures of his career, particularly in Boston. “There was a news director who made it pretty clear he didn’t like the way I looked or the way I sounded—now why would that be?” he recalled. “Fortunately, he got fired before I left.
“But there was a lesson in it. You have to put in the work and be so good at your job that they can’t question your qualifications.”
The Morning News airs from 4 to 10 a.m. and is WGN’s highest-rated program. Marshall feels fortunate to be part of it. The biggest drawback to the job, he said, is “the crazy hours—I’m usually in bed by 6:30 p.m. so I can be up by 2 a.m. for a conference call on what stories we should cover.”
Too often, he said, they involve guns and violence on the city’s streets, which wears on him. Marshall said he was particularly mortified by the murder of a 10-year-old and a 13-year-old, allegedly by their accomplices in a gun-shop robbery, who sought to silence the youngsters before they could tell what they knew.
“First off, that kids that young could be caught up in gang-banging is a tragedy unto itself,” he said. “But to have those two young lives taken before they had a chance to experience any kind of life … It breaks your heart.”