Joe Trost, columnist for #PrepSportsReport

The phone rang at 2:31 a.m. on Friday morning.

Compared to three weeks earlier, this time I expected the call. When I went to bed at 11:30 p.m. on Thursday night, and I set my alarm for 2:15 a.m. to prepare for media calls.

Doesn’t mean I wanted to wake up less than three hours later, but there was a real-life story to continue to tell. For nearly a month, it’s something I’ve been doing and pushing nonstop around the clock locally and nationally with media in the early mornings, afternoons and evenings.

Those who have known me for years will tell you – no one will ever outwork me. I like to say it this way: If it’s you and I on the treadmill, there are only two options – either you are getting off first or I’m dying on the treadmill.

Trust me when I say that.

It’s really that simple, and it’s something I learned from my dad when I was a high school student athlete. “Don’t let anyone ever outwork you,” he lectured me once after I didn’t want to go to practice my freshmen year. I said that to myself time-and-time again, as I tried to lend any assistance I could to the more than 3,000 Chicago student athletes stuck between a bitter political battle featuring the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) that the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) got pulled into.

For those who don’t know me or my history well may wonder: Why do you care so much? I didn’t have any skin in the game. Why put myself out there and take a side, worry about ticking someone off when it’s easier to sit and watch? What’s funny though is that 10 times the amount of people were calling, emailing or texting saying that I haven’t changed over the years.

As a teen reporter for a south suburban newspaper, I railed against Providence Catholic when it refused to let the girls soccer team play on its stadium field. Think about this for a second: For two calendar years, girls were forced to hop on a bus and play every game on the road because the athletic director said the stadium field needed to be re-seeded in the spring. Mind you, the boys team had home games like normal in the fall.

Surprise, surprise though, the athletic director also was the football coach. The next spring, Providence played home games. Two years later, the school bought a plot of land and built two soccer fields. I still have the picture the team sent naming it “Joe Trost Field.” I didn’t have any skin in that game either, but as coaches and parents were afraid to speak up – someone had to help the student athletes.

I railed against the City of Palos and a large group of senior citizens, who were trying to block Stagg from building a community athletic complex for 1,000s of student athletes and the community to use. I remember writing and saying on TV back then that people cared more about the birds and the bees and their discount at McDonald’s in Palos than they did about kids.

As coaches, parents and teachers thanked me for standing up, I continually asked: Why aren’t you speaking up? Again, fear of backlash.

A little over 10 years ago, people laughed at first and then stopped talking to me for months as I railed against the breakup of the South-Inter Conference Association (SICA). At the time, SICA was the largest high school conference in Illinois. I remember sitting at a January seeding meeting with coaches after I first wrote about it, and a number of coaches said nothing will stop it.

Well, seven months later and just days from becoming the largest federal lawsuit involving school districts since Brown vs. the Board of Education, an out-of-court settlement was reached to ensure there was racial equality for all student athletes at schools throughout the South Suburbs.

I still recall saying on Chicago Tonight that it was amazing how many people went utterly silent on the topic throughout that spring and summer. Sports Illustrated icon Lester Munson stressed how eyes were opened nationally due to the coverage.

Weeks before this CTU strike, I stood up for student athletes who want to play soccer on Sundays with their family and friends. Right now, the IHSA is controlling student athletes – many of whom attend public schools funded by public tax dollars – on their day off of school, which is legally fascinating when you think about it.

I’ve railed against the Illinois High School Soccer Coaches Association (IHSSCA) (and more news coming this week) for charging money in order to be considered for All-State or All-America honors, while no other high school sport has that requirement in Illinois. It’s an ugly, ugly perception, especially when the association is registered under a high school teacher’s name.

I’ve battled for countless coaches/teachers over the years. Brian Papa (Lincoln-Way East – fired after a student athlete lied); Seong Ha (Glenbrook South – dismissal brought attention to gender discrimination); and Jane Crowe (Plainfield North – dismissed after sitting seniors who ditched school on a game day) are just three that come to mind.

Papa told me that he was pulled in a school office and administration asked, “How did Joe Trost find out about this?” I railed hard for the Hall of Fame coach, and the district eventually made good with Papa. He was back coaching a few months later.

Ha was emotional on the phone when he told me why he was dismissed, because an athletic director wanted a female to coach the successful girls soccer program that Ha built. Imagine if a female coach was removed from a successful boys team, because an athletic director wanted a male to coach boys? I railed hard for Ha, because it was the right thing to do. Ha, who begged me not to do it because he didn’t want to face “backlash from school leaders,” got his job back before that season started.

While I couldn’t save Crowe, she’s one person that will always shine. The former Division-I standout built a classy program – on and off the field – from the ground up. The athletic director who dismissed her is now hanging on for his job, after the replacement he hired for Crowe was suspended in the spring; suspended again this fall; fired as head coach during the middle of the season; and dismissed as a teacher less than 10 days later.

But my favorite memory of all time will always be when I railed for 1,000s of student athletes to be honored – not just the top kids from the best programs that had more financial resources. That plea led to the creation of what was the largest high school sports awards banquet in Illinois, which was fully funded by local businesses. I was 17 years old at the time showing adults that we could do better, be better by going the extra step.

Over the next couple years, more than 6,000 student athletes attended the galas. Sadly, they came to an end when I left for a Sun-Times staff position at the age of 21. It’s hard not to smile when I see those kids now with their families or run into their parents throughout the U.S. They still talk about the lifelong memories.   

So when I saw Kevin Sterling from the Sterling Law Firm in Chicago also standing up to fight for CPS student athletes, I felt the same energy and passion that I have for years and knew I could help him champion the pro-kids focus that we all should be. (One day soon, the entire story of the CTU/CPS/IHSA/student athlete saga from 2019 will be told in a magazine series or a documentary. I promise you that it will be a must-read or must-see with some amazing behind-the-scene moments.) 

My super long-winded point is this: People have called me a student-athlete advocate, the founder of the PepsiCo Showdown, a reporter for The Star Newspapers, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, ESPN.com, director of communications and probably a few other phrases (hey, let’s be honest – not everyone will love you).

None of it matters. Titles are useless.

As my dad continues to remind me, you can never go wrong by doing what’s right. And in this latest case, I couldn’t stand and watch student athletes get steamrolled by adult politics and policies that weren’t pro-kids. That’s why I stood up time-and-time again when people wouldn’t talk to ensure this story of student athletes didn’t fade away.

Trust me when I say this: The CTU didn’t gain anything extra in its contract that couldn’t have been obtained if student athletes were allowed to play. But the damage done to some innocent student athletes could be life altering. Remember: Short-term sacrifices for long-term gains can have lifelong negative impacts. Any teacher or coach who knowingly negatively impacts a child should be fired on the spot.

As the case is many times in society, unless you know or see something personally – odds are you don’t care. The top five percent of student athletes are set, but so many other student athletes need public-school opportunities – especially during their senior seasons. I just received another email this past weekend from a former high school coach – now coaching college soccer – pointing out the kids he saw at the end of 2018.

“One of the kids ended up renting a room close by just to play at Harper,” said Harper College men’s soccer coach Andre Watson, who had successful coaching runs at Lake Zurich and Prairie Ridge.

This latest crusade I tried to help with started with soccer, but then as I watched tennis, volleyball, golf and cross country get hammered, I started to realize the massive crisis. “We” – as adults – had an opportunity to standup to show future leaders how to do what’s right.

A few did.

But in the end, it was the student athletes – across all sports – who rose to the occasion when education leaders throughout Illinois failed in their leadership test.

The IHSA, which I’ve always supported when club sports have attacked it, filed another emergency motion late Friday afternoon in what it tried to gently frame as a “procedural brief.” It set itself up to take this to the Illinois Supreme Court if the Appellate Court rules the IHSA vs. CPS cross-country runners lawsuit “moot” on Tuesday.

If the IHSA does that – goes to the Illinois Supreme Court – it could be playing with fire. If the IHSA were to lose at that level, it’s now an Illinois Supreme Court ruling against it that could reshape the entire organization. Think about that for a second: The story of how the will of CPS student athletes reshaped high school athletics in Illinois and the nation when adults leaders couldn’t get it together.

There’s no doubt teacher’s unions, schools districts and high school associations throughout the U.S. are watching this play out. It’s another reminder that shows as an adult community, “we” worry more about legal than “we” do about doing what’s right.

It’s about control and power instead of pro-kids and common sense in a crisis moment.

Think of the movie “300.” The IHSA is Zeus, and the CPS student athletes are strategically showing the entire nation that teachers/coaches, schools districts and high school associations need to be better and do better – period. Even leaders of IHSA member schools are looking around and saying, “What are we doing?”

I’ve been in-and-around the education world for more than two decades now, so when I say this I don’t care how many eyerolls I get because just as many people will agree. The education industry is full of do as I say, not as I do people.

I’ve taught, I’ve coached at the high school level. I’ve covered student athletes and created massive on-and-off-the-field events to help kids from all over. The PepsiCo Showdown Series has grown over the years to help more than just the top-tier programs, and I’ve pushed back against the premier schools who have said, “Why are you letting them in?” It has grown to help all sports and uses the power of sports to engage and educate student athletes about the importance of making a difference on and off the field.

I recently invested in a start-up bus company to help CPS student athletes get to their after-school events on time, because it’s a massive issue in Chicago and actually some suburban districts, too. I know and have seen the struggle inside and outside of schools throughout Illinois.

My sister is a teacher, my stepmother is in the world of college education and I have countless friends who are teachers, too. I’m a massive supporter of the IHSA and high school sports, realizing the importance of representing your community and being a true student athlete.

My point is this: When and where I can help, where I can open a door for student athletes, I’ve tried. I’ve used my voice through media, through relationships and through pure common sense to help student athletes from the city and suburbs, public and private schools and all difference backgrounds and income levels for decades.

One percent of students go on to play professionally, but all 100 percent can be difference makers and leaders throughout their lives. In this case, the CPS student athletes have been and continue to be the true leaders to drive change for generations to come.

“We” all want what’s best for students – on and off the field – in a fiscally responsible way. But “we” didn’t need to watch 1,000s of student athletes perish in Chicago to accomplish that.

“We” shouldn’t be bullying adults and using kids as pawns. “We” are better than that. I can’t tell you how many people I respect that I watched stand on the sidelines, as kid after kid went down in this burning house the past month.

I watched a suburban coach sit in silence, while a CPS coach – with whom he built a friendship with a few years ago – fought for all kids during the battle. He stood up for what’s right. And that same CPS coach sat in the stands this past weekend to watch that suburban coach’s team play in the state finals, because he wanted to support their friendship.

It was utterly fascinating to me, reminding me of a scene from the movie “Remember the Titans” when everyone knew right from wrong, but some education leaders sat in silence.

Please tell me what message that sends to kids in a moment of crisis? It’s OK to fight for two things at once and not use and kill kids’ dreams as pawns. There is a reason why other states ensure this never happens.

Education leaders stress the importance of hard work on and off the field and to do what’s right. They love to show pictures and videos, tell the stories of their student athletes showing compassion and going the extra mile for those that need help.

But when 1,000s of student athletes were in need of help, where were the majority of education and even political leaders throughout Illinois? I don’t care if these kids were from the third largest city in the U.S., Central Illinois or Collinsville.

Silence speaks volumes about someone’s character in a moment of crisis – especially when it comes to innocent kids.

People ask me all the time: Doesn’t the IHSA and its member schools care how they look? I’ve said no, because it’s the IHSA – it’s not a single person. While kid after kid perished in Chicago, there isn’t one adult or group of adults that perished.

Instead of being a hero and pro-kids, adult leaders were able to hide behind the IHSA logo instead of doing what’s right.

And “we” can never let that happen again.

CornerKICKS normally appears on Sundays. Contact Joe Trost at joetrost@gmail.com.

Bio on columnist: Joe Trost is an award-winning writer: STAR Newspapers, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune and ESPN.com. Locally, he is a three-time statewide IHSSCA Media Person of the Year; founder of the PepsiCo Showdown, the largest high school sports series in the U.S.; and board member for Buddy’s HELPERS, which engages and educates student athletes about Making A Difference On AND Off The Field.

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