David Gross ’22 interviews Chicago Bear Anthony Miller

By David Gross

Leo High School Class of 2022

Anthony Miller of the Chicago Bears is my favorite NFL wide receiver, so I was really excited when the Bears offered me an opportunity to interview him.

Miller, 26, is in his third year with the Bears, joining them in 2018 as a second-round draft choice from the University of Memphis. He was the 51st overall pick and the sixth wide receiver taken in that year’s draft.

The interview took place on Tuesday, Dec. 15, via Zoom; Miller was at the Bears’ Halas Hall training center and I was at Leo. He covered many things, including the Bears’ playoff chances, which are still alive after the December 20 30-27 victory over the Minnesota Vikings that evened their record at 7-7. 

I was a little nervous at the start, but he helped me relax by telling me to call him “Anthony” rather than “Mr. Miller.”

Anthony had chosen Black Lives Matter as his message for the “My Cleats, My Cause” game the week before, and he addressed the significance of his decision: All lives can’t matter if Black lives don’t matter, he explained, adding that he would support the movement even if he were not Black because he believes in the equality of all people.  

Growing up in Memphis, Anthony said he was aware of racial inequality, but that his only experience with overt racism was being randomly pulled over by police, “which is a pretty common thing in the South.”

The transition from Memphis to Chicago has gone pretty smoothly, Anthony said, adding that he looked forward to coming to Chicago because “it’s a big, exciting city,” although he is still getting used to the cold weather.   

Memphis, he added, was the inspiration for much of his “Drip”—his style, which, he said, makes him one of the more fashion-conscious Bears. As he builds on his “Anthony Drip,” he said he’s avoiding designer stores and doing more shopping at Black-owned businesses and boutiques. He’s also supporting his girlfriend’s up-and-coming clothing line, and as a Nike athlete, he has his choice of Nike wear at his disposal.

Anthony’s girlfriend gave birth to a baby in June. Not that there’s any upside to a pandemic, but Anthony said COVID restrictions are keeping him at home more, enabling him to spend time with his 6-month-old son and bond with him.

Anthony believes that running track in high school helped make him a better football player in that it improved his conditioning and his speed. He’s known for an exceptional burst off the line that makes him one of the more dangerous slot receivers in the NFL, though he said he views himself as an all-around receiver who happens to line up in the slot primarily. 

Anthony said he didn’t really have a favorite wide receiver growing up, but he looked up to Steve Smith Sr. because he was small but tough and didn’t back down from anyone. He likes to watch film of Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs and the other top wideouts to see how they run routes and get open.   

He said he “didn’t hold it against” the five wide receivers who were taken ahead of him in the 2018 draft, but that it gave him motivation to prove he was as good as they were. He also said he paid no attention to “mock draft” projections that ranked him from 10th to 20th among wide receivers because he knew he was better than that. Also, he saw from the Bears’ depth chart that he’d have an opportunity to play right away as a second-round pick, and that gave him additional motivation as well.

The Bears’ wide receiver group, with Allen Robinson, Darnell Mooney and himself as the leaders, is among the most underrated in the NFL, Anthony believes. 

Anthony said he’s conscious of the fact that pro athletes are expected to be role models because so many young people look up to them. He accepts that responsibility and said it makes him feel good to know that young people look up to him.

Anthony has 45 catches for 462 yards and two touchdowns this season. He’s also being used as a punt returner. He impressed me as a really good guy who works hard to perfect his craft and has a really great future ahead of him.

Editor’s note: The interview Leo junior David Gross did with Chicago Bears wide receiver Anthony Miller on Tuesday, Dec. 15 came about through the Bears’ partnership with Invisalign. More on that later.

The Zoom call—Miller was at the Bears’ Halas Hall training center and David was at Leo—began at 2:30 p.m. We had a hard stop of 2:50 because Miller had to get to a meeting, and just before 2:50 a Bears PR rep started wrapping it up. “Last question, David.” 

Said Miller: “Hey, the meeting’s just down the hall. I can stick around. If you’ve got two or three more questions, David, ask away.”

Leo President Dan McGrath, a longtime sports journalist, told David he must have really made a connection, because “in my 40-plus years of interviewing athletes, never once did I have one volunteer to stick around and answer more questions.

The Bears have a promotional agreement with Invisalign, an ultra-modern orthodontics firm that bills itself as an alternative to metal braces for teens and adults. David didn’t know it until the interview was over, but because he was chosen to conduct it, he will receive a free Invisalign treatment to correct an overbite that makes him a little self-conscious about his smile.

His dad Gary, a Leo grad from Principal Rawls’ era, was near tears when we told him. “I’ve been trying to scrape together the money to get that boy’s teeth fixed, and now it’s going to happen,” he said.

Pretty cool to be able to do something nice for a great Leo family.

Khalil Mack and Anthony Miller chatting up Leo kids within three weeks of each other. Not bad for a scrappy little school on the South Side. Further proof that the sun never sets on the Leo Empire.

Text to give to the Leo Scholarship Benefit

We have a TEXT TO GIVE way to donate to our 2020 Scholarship Benefit honoring Coach Michael Holmes. Just text LEOLIONS to 243725. It’s an easy way to donate to the Benefit. Thank you! The Benefit will be live streamed on Tuesday, January 12 at 6 p.m. central. (www.pjhchicago.com/leo-scholarship-benefit)

Tax Credit Scholarship Applications open January 12 and 13

Tax Credit Scholarship Applications open in early January for two different Scholarship Granting Organizations! Be prepared to apply at both portals as soon as they open to give you a better chance of receiving a TCS! 

1. Big Shoulders Fund Scholarship Granting Organization opens for applications on Tuesday January 12th at 8am here:  https://www.bigshouldersfundsgo.org/

• Big Shoulders Fund SGO is open this week with a practice application only from December 15th-December 20th for families to become familiar with our application. Check out the Application Sneak Peek here: PRACTICE APPLICATION

• They are offering Tax Credit Tuesday Information Sessions Via Zoom: December 29 at noon – English Link Here & Español Link Aqui and January 5 LIVE Q&A at noon

• Follow the Big Shoulders Fund on social media for the most up to date information.

2. Empower Illinois opens January 13th for applications for the 21-22 School Year here: https://empowerillinois.org/apply/how-do-i-apply/

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.

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. 

Leo 2020 Sports Wrap-up

Leo’s Class of 2020 saw college preparation disrupted by the COVID pandemic, but adjustments gradually were made and plans finalized.

The sports year came to an abrupt end when Gov. Pritzker ordered all state schools closed in mid-March, but Eastern Illinois University will be the beneficiary of some of Leo’s top athletic talent, landing both football/track star Tobias Sample and track standout Dorian Woods.

Jordan Anderson, a honors graduate and National Honor Society member who qualified for the IHSA state wrestling meet, will attend Wheeling University in West Virginia on a wrestling scholarship. 

The Drumgoole brothers, valedictorian Kevin and salutatorian Kaleb, are headed for Indiana State in Terre Haute, IN. Basketball standout Kendale Anderson will attend Highland Community College in Freeport, IL., while teammate Tim Howard is bound for Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, IA.

Sample won the Lawless Award as Chicago Catholic League Red Division Player of the Year in football. A standout running back, he was forced to play much of the season at quarterback because of injuries. He also qualified for the IHSA state track meet in the sprints and sprint relays his sophomore and junior years. Sample intends to play both sports at Eastern when athletic competition resumes.

Eastern recruited Woods as a track athlete after he qualified for the IHSA meet in the long jump, sprints and sprint relays as a junior. He may try to walk on to the basketball team.

A three-year starter at Leo, Kendale Anderson helped the Lions to a 62-27 record over that span, registering 14 double-doubles as a senior. He made the all-tournament team at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament, averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds in four games, including 30 and 13 in a semifinal victory over Hyde Park. At Highland he’ll be reunited with older brother DaChaun, who averaged eight points and nine rebounds as a Highland freshman after helping Leo to regional, sectional and Catholic League titles in his three seasons, achieving All-State recognition as a senior.

Howard played two years at Leo after transferring in from Bogan, averaging 12 points and eight rebounds as a senior and making the all-tournament team at  the Quincy Thanksgiving Tournament.