Bears’ Great Khalil Mack Joins Our Students for a Zoom Call

As ZOOM guests go, they don’t come much more special than Khalil Mack. 

The Chicago Bears’ All-Pro outside linebacker joined Leo High School students for a ZOOM call on Monday, Nov. 10, and, in a discussion that lasted more than an hour, he repeatedly demonstrated that there is more to him than football.

Principal Shaka Rawls invited the entire student body to join the call, revealing only that a “special guest” would be a participant. More than 160 young Lions jumped on. With Mr. Rawls moderating the discussion, they heard Mack tell of growing up in Fort Pierce, Fl., where football was an early fascination—”I sneaked into a Pop Warner league when I was seven, and you were supposed to be nine,” he recalled with a smile.

And yet Mack’s career nearly ended before it began because of a high school knee injury that limited him to one varsity season.

Thus he was not heavily recruited, and considered himself fortunate to receive a scholarship offer from the University of Buffalo. “My dad always taught us that it’s not what life puts in front of you, but how you handle it,” Mack said.

During his four years at Buffalo, Mack not only developed into a first-round NFL draft pick, he learned life lessons that were just as essential to his development as man.

“The coaches had a grading system that assigned a numerical value to how much you were contributing, not just to the success of the team but toward helping your teammates become better people,” Mack said. “It took me till my senior year to earn a maximum grade, a ‘4.’ That’s when I decided I’d rather be a better teammate than I am a player.” 

If Mack checks both boxes, he credits his father’s influence.

“I grew up in the church, and my dad was pretty strict —he made sure we walked the line,” he recalled. “Take advantage of the window while it’s open … Get your grades now and worry about the girls later —the girls are always going to be there. You have to serve others to get a sense of who you are.

“My upbringing set me up for everything that has happened in my life,” Mack said. “Sometimes I almost sound like my dad when I’m talking.”  

After he had terrorized Mid-American Conference offenses as a pass-rushing linebacker, the then-Oakland Raiders picked Mack in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft, the fifth overall selection. “I felt so blessed,” he said, “Coming from where I came from, it almost didn’t seem real.” 

But when he saw how good he was …

“It bothered me that I wasn’t the No. 1 overall pick,” he conceded. “I played with a chip on my shoulder.”

Indeed, Mack was an instant star in the NFL, a two-time All-Pro, a three-time Pro Bowl selection and the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year. He did not miss a game during his four seasons in Oakland and considers himself fortunate to have had future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson as a teammate.

“He taught me how to work, how to get ready,” Mack said. “ ‘Can’t nobody push me harder than I can push myself.’ That’s the power of the mind.”

As Mack’s rookie contract was expiring, he sought a salary commensurate with his stature as one of the league’s top defensive players.

“I’m petty like that,” he said. “I pay attention to details.”

Citing salary-cap limitations, the Raiders refused to meet Mack’s demands and traded him to Chicago.The Bears went 12-4 and made the playoffs in his first season, but the last two have been a struggle as inconsistent quarterback play hampered the offense. The defense has been more solid, but Mack often finds himself the target of double and even triple-team blocking schemes.

“It’s in me to want to be the best at whatever I’m doing, and it bothers me when I’m not able to affect the game the way I want to,” he said. “But if they’re putting two and three guys on me, somebody else ought to get through.”

Mack didn’t publicly back Colin Kapernick’s national anthem protest against police brutality and racial injustice back in 2016 and prefers to keep his views on social justice to himself. But as a young NFL player, he experienced his own “Black Lives Matter” moment in Florida that he shared with the Leo audience.

“I was driving a rental car to the airport to fly back to Oakland when I got pulled over,” he recalled. “Minor infraction —I might have turned without signaling. Nothing on me, no warrants, so he had to let me go. But when he realized that I played for the Raiders, he said, ‘You’re not one of those ‘take a knee’ guys, are you?’ If you are, I might have to take you in.’

“It took me a while to process that in my head —why would he say that? But it’s real, man, it’s out there. You have to decide what side you’re on.”

Mack has no problem with athletes being viewed as role models and accepts the responsibility. 

“It’s taking advantage of that window,” he explained. “You have to understand what your influence is and use it now, because when you’re done playing, nobody’s going to care about you or pay attention to what you have to say.” 

As the conversation concluded, Mack thanked the young Lions for their rapt attention and promised to visit Leo when COVID restrictions are relaxed enough to permit it. He also advised them to take advantage of the downtime the pandemic has inadvertently created.

“Use this time to learn and help yourself get better,” he said. “You might not know what you’re getting ready for, but you should be getting ready for something.”

Save the Dates for Tax Credit Scholarships

The start of year four of the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, made possible by the Illinois Invest in Kids Act, is right around the corner.

Big Shoulders Fund will open its application on January 12, 2021 at 8 a.m.

Empower Illinois reservations will open at 6:30 p.m. on January 13, 2021.

More information will be available in December.

Covid Concerns Cause a Return to Remote Learning

COVID concerns have tossed another curveball at Leo High School.

Three weeks after the resumption of in-person classroom instruction, Principal Shaka Rawls announced that Leo will return to remote learning beginning Monday, Nov. 9 and continuing through the Thanksgiving break, which starts on Wednesday, Nov. 25.

“This is being done out of an abundance of caution,” Mr. Rawls said. “The number of positive COVID tests in the communities we serve has elevated the risk factor to an unacceptable level.”

Leo began the school year with an upgraded and improved version of an on-line platform implemented last spring, when Gov. Pritzker ordered all state schools closed in response to the rapid spread of the Corona virus. Remote learning was in place throughout the first academic quarter, with classroom instruction resuming on Monday, Oct. 19.

Beginning Monday, Nov. 9, all classes will be taught remotely, although allowances will be made for students who would be unsupervised at home. Leo’s administrative staff will be working in the building, so a limited number of students will be allowed to come to Leo and attend classes remotely.

Teachers also will be available for on-line “office hours” for any students who may have missed or struggled with that day’s lesson. Leo hopes to resume classroom instruction on Monday, Nov. 30. 

“This process has been difficult for everyone, but the buy-in and cooperation from the teachers has been exceptional from the outset,” Mr. Rawls said. “Teachers teach better and students learn better in a classroom setting. We all believe that one of the best things about being at Leo is being at Leo—the kids interacting with their teachers and with each other, developing that bond that means so much to us. You don’t get that through a computer screen. You have to be here. 

“But the health, safety and well-being of our students, faculty, families … everybody involved with Leo is always going to be our top priority.”

Athletics and other extracurricular activities remain on hold as Gov. Pritzker’s Department of Public Health and the IHSA continue to battle over the risk levels of various sports. 

Plans remain in place for football to play a seven-game spring season. Basketball might also become a spring sport; following a recent spike in positive COVID tests, the Department of Public Health upgraded the basketball risk factor, postponing, for the time being, a December-to-February, conference-games-only schedule the Chicago Catholic League had hoped to implement. Talks among Catholic League members are ongoing, but basketball competition is on hold till further notice.

The cross country season went on as scheduled, although state-level competition was eliminated. Bowling also has been deemed safe enough to be held. Wrestling, its risk factor also upgraded, has been moved to the summer, with baseball likely to follow owing to an overcrowded spring schedule.  

The world-renowned Leo Choir also has been silenced temporarily, as state officials cited communal singing as a risk factor in spreading the virus and banned it.

“We’ll make adjustments as needed,” Mr. Rawls said. “We’re Leo. We’ll find a way to make this work.”

Cross Country Team Wrap-Up

Cold, blustery conditions made it tough going for lithe, lean runners, so the cross country season ended on a mildly disappointing note for Leo sophomore Ja’keem Cole and senior teammate Kobe Roberts.

Cole, Leo’s leading runner all season, placed 64th at the Harvest Christian IHSA Sectional meet in Elgin on Saturday, Oct. 31. Roberts was 75th. Their times for the three-mile course—18:41.40 for Cole, 19:07.60 for Roberts—were well off their personal bests, which spoke to the difficult conditions..

Sectional competition was the culmination of the cross country season, as COVID concerns prompted cancellation of the state meet. So reaching the sectional was a noteworthy accomplishment for both Leo runners. The previous week they had led the Lions to a sixth-place finish at the Bishop McNamara Regional in Kankakee.

COVID concerns also resulted in a change to the format of IHSA competition. At the regional, the top five teams and top five individual finishers from non-qualifying teams moved on to the sectional. So Leo, with its sixth-place showing, fell one spot short of advancing as a team.

Cole placed 18th at the regional, covering the three-mile course in 17:23.15. Roberts was 23rd in 17:29.89. Seniors Damen Ward (32nd, 17:55.35) and Ri’chard Coleman (33rd, 17:56.38) and sophomores Tim Wilson (46th, 18:30.61) and David Hannah (65th, 19:28.52) also contributed to Leo’s sixth-place finish behind Herscher, Paxton-Buckley-Loda, Chicago Christian, Joliet Catholic and host Bishop Mac.

At the Catholic League meet in Glenview one week earlier, Cole had trouble dealing with the windy conditions and was more than 50 seconds off his regional time, placing 43rd overall in 18:14.19. But his tightly bunched teammates joined him leading Leo to a second-place showing (behind Montini) in the CCL White Division and an eighth-place finish overall, behind Loyola, St. Ignatius, Fenwick, Marmion, Brother Rice, DePaul Prep and Montini.

Coleman (46th, 18:25.2), Ward (48th, 18:39.9), Roberts (49th, 18:41.9) and Hannah (64th, 19:43.9) rounded out the Leo contingent.

Congratulations to all the Lion runners and to first-year Coach Andre Weathers on a strong season.

Veterans Memorial Observance

COVID concerns were the major factor as we contemplated canceling the annual Veterans Memorial observance at Leo, but we ultimately decided to go ahead with it. “It means so much to our alums, particularly those who have served,” Leo President Dan McGrath said. “This is our opportunity to honor them, and to say thank you.”

The ceremony took place as scheduled at Leo on Friday, Nov. 6, amid stringent safety precautions including masks, social distancing and hand sanitizers.

In addition, Leo’s students were kept in the building to watch the ceremony on a Zoom link, which also was available to any alums who chose not to attend in person. That meant no post-ceremony mingling between our guests and our students. “That’s unfortunate, because the alums enjoy it, and it’s an impromptu history lesson for the kids, always one of the highlights of the day,” McGrath said. “But we decided to err on the side of caution.”

COVID concerns did hold the crowd down on an unseasonably warm, sunny day, but approximately 30 veterans and other Leo alums were in attendance. A color guard from the Chicago-based U.S. Army Recruiting Battalion presented the colors, and Vietnam veteran Jose Rivera from American Legion Post 160 in Chicago Ridge played “Taps.” Leo senior Joshua Carey led the singing of the National Anthem, and junior Tyler Brooks read a tribute to Marine Corporal John Peter Fardy, a 1940 Leo graduate and World War II hero who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for actions that cost him his life but saved the lives of his squadmates at the Battle for Okinawa in May 1945. 

Leo also recognized World War II veteran Jim Wilkins, who dropped out of school to join the Navy in 1943, only to be awarded his Leo diploma in 2016. Mr. Wilkins joined Vietnam-era Army veterans Jim Furling ’65 and Jim Carollo ’67 in laying a wreath at the Veterans Memorial in the courtyard. 

“Just a great day for Leo,” McGrath said. “Another one.”       

Homecoming and free hot dogs!

We are inviting all alumni, families, and current students out for this year’s version of Homecoming!  We have a very generous donation from Tyson Foods this year and we will distribute hot dogs, chips and softdrinks to our Leo Family. While this is geared towards our boys, we have enough to open this event up to our alumni and friends! So please join us this Friday, Sept. 18 from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. in the large parking lot.  Facemasks are required, and we will be following all social distancing guidelines.  

If you are interested in volunteering contact Ms. Al-Nurridin at falnurridin@leohighschool.org or call 773-224-9600.

 The new Leo masks and T-shirts will be for sale also! 

Back to School Jam a big success

Leo tuned up for Opening Day in a big way with a Back to School Jam at Leo on Saturday, August 8, Shaka A. Rawls Producer/Director.

On a full-service day of service to the Auburn Gresham community, Leo offered COVID testing, voter registration and census information to adults, along with a meals giveaway that has been a weekly staple since the COVID pandemic hit in mid-March and now stands at more than 12,000 meals distributed.

Parents who registered to vote or produced a voter-registration card won a raffle ticket for one of 50 brand-new children’s bicycles Leo made available. When the bikes were gone we broke out the skateboards. Each school-age child who came by received a backpack stuffed with school supplies, along with a toy or an item of sports equipment from a supply vast enough to outfit an Olympics.

“I don’t think a single child left here empty-handed,” Leo President Dan McGrath said.  

Volunteers from St. Rita High School, the Big Shoulders Fund and Alpha Psi Alpha fraternity joined Leo’s faculty, staff, parents, students, alumni and friends in manning the various booths and tables. At the peak of the day there were an estimated 500 visitors on the grounds. The horrific shooting that left 15 people wounded outside a funeral home up the street at 79th and Carpenter three weeks earlier seemed like ancient history.

“This is what can happen when a community pulls together,” Principal Rawls said. “We’re celebrating our neighborhood and getting our young people ready for education.”

Leo’s plan of action

As a new academic year approaches and schools prepare to reopen amid the COVID pandemic, “hybrid” is a word we’re hearing quite often.

It generally refers to a combination of on-line and in-classroom learning platforms schools are adopting to conform to COVID restrictions and minimize the risk of a Corona-virus outbreak. Leo, for example, will begin the 2020-21 school year in an 80-20 format: approximately 80 percent of the instruction will be on-line, and roughly 20 percent will be conducted in person for any students who seek it.

Throughout the summer, Principal Shaka Rawls, Academic Coordinator Jennifer Fleck and Technology Supervisor Santorice Ross have been hard at work developing an instruction platform that complies with COVID restrictions regarding health and safety but still maintains Leo’s traditionally strong educational focus. 

The plan calls for “On-Lion Learning”—on-line classes will be held Monday through Thursday, during normal school hours, with students logging in from home. Teachers and administrators will be available at Leo each Friday for any student or parent who seeks in-person consultation. These interactions require an appointment and will be limited to 40 students at a time, per COVID restrictions. In addition to the Friday sessions, teachers will conduct “office hours” after class Monday through Thursday and remain available on-line to any student with questions about that day’s lesson.

The Archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Schools and the Big Shoulders Fund have signed off on Leo’s plan. It’s a departure from OCS reopening guidelines, which encourage more classroom instruction. But it takes into account the high incidence of COVID in Auburn Gresham and surrounding communities. The plan will be evaluated after the first quarter of the school year, approximately 10 weeks, and adjusted, if need be.

“Along with our mission of providing a high-quality, values-based education to our students, our top priority is the health and safety of our young men and their families, as well as the health and safety of our faculty, staff and the entire Leo School Community,” Principal Rawls said. 

“I know there’s research that’s often cited saying young people are less likely to get COVID, and if they do, it’s less damaging. That may be true. But we deal with a lot of multi-generational families here at Leo. One of our students might get it and not even be symptomatic, but if he goes home and spreads it to a grandparent, we’re talking about a very vulnerable population.”

Leo administrators took into account Leo’s success in building an on-line platform for the final 10 weeks of the 2019-2020 school year. Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered all Illinois schools closed in mid-March, which limited Leo to remote learning exclusively for the fourth quarter.

“Our students took to on-line learning very well for the most part, and the buy-in from the teachers was outstanding,” Rawls said. “So we have a track record. Given where we are and what we’re facing, this is clearly the best way for us to go.

“And we’ll make it work. We’re Leo.”

Early returns have been encouraging. Opening Day took place on Thursday, August 13. Some of the usual pomp and circumstance was missing due to COVID restrictions, but nearly 200 students turned out.

Masks in place, hands freshly scrubbed and sanitized and observing social-distancing parameters, they received their schedules, met their teachers and were given a detailed breakdown of how remote learning will work when school resumes on Monday, August 17.

“It was great to see the kids again, and to welcome the freshmen,” said Dan McGrath, who is beginning his 11th year as Leo’s president. “It’s going to be an unusual year, but we’ll make the best of it.”

One week earlier, on Thursday, August 6, Principal Rawls held a Zoom call for Leo parents, outlining our approach to the school year and the reasoning behind it. The reaction among the more than 140 parents on the call was overwhelmingly positive. They seemed to appreciate the thought and preparation that went into crafting the plan.

“I’m absolutely convinced that this is the best approach for us,” Principal Rawls said. “It’s obviously not ideal, and we’ll evaluate it as we go, but our commitment to educating our young men will be as strong as ever.”

A different Opening Day this year

When Shaka Rawls ’93 became Leo’s principal in 2016, he invited the alumni back for the first day of school to greet the students and welcome the newcomers to Leo. Alums gathered in the courtyard and shook the students’ hands as they arrived at school, a display of solidarity meant to remind the kids that by enrolling at Leo, they were becoming part of something special—the Leo Family. A reception in the cafeteria followed, featuring coffee, rolls and reminiscence. 

“Opening Day” thus has become an annual celebration, with more than 60 alums taking part last year.      

Of course, that was pre-COVID. With restrictions discouraging in-person contact and emphasizing social distancing, handshakes and face-to-face courtyard greetings were impractical and not advisable this year. So the alums were not part of Opening Day, which took place on Thursday, August 13.

“We missed the alums,” Principal Rawls conceded. “But we’re hopeful that this is a one-time deal and they’ll be back next year.”

COVID restrictions permitting, the alums also will be invited back to Leo for the annual Veterans Day observance, scheduled for Friday, Nov. 6 this year.