THE SPECTRUM OF GREATNESS
By Jared Alexander
The South Side Bandits were a Chicago-based youth organization football team. John O’Reilly, a retired blue-collar worker with balding hair and green eyes, coached the team, yet the athletes had no success under his coaching.
Eventually, Coach O’Reilly lost his coaching job. A social worker named Allison Ward replaced him. She was a former quarterback for a women’s professional football team in Chicago with blonde hair, piercing blue eyes, and an athletic physique. Her father was a former college football coach in Wisconsin before inspiring his daughter to become a social worker.
Chapter 1: The Coaches
“You guys ready to play football?” The new coach asked as she sat in their group. “Where’s Coach O’Reilly?” one of the Bandit players responded to the new coach. Everybody had the same question even though they were not good at asking it. “I’ll be coaching you from now on. A great friend of my father will help me,” Miss Ward said to the entire team.
John Preston was a retired NFL field goal kicker with silvery hair, blue eyes, and sturdy legs. His seven-season NFL career ended after the blood clots in his kicking leg affected his power and accuracy. He became a P.E. teacher at the local junior high. He taught useful kicking and punting techniques to Paul Longlegs, the Bandits’ kicker and the sole Native American on the team.
Coach Ward helped David Washington who has Asperger’s Syndrome improve his football skills. Washington was an African-American with an Afro, sturdy frame, powerful legs, black hair, and eyes. David lived with his mother, who did her best to raise her only child by herself. The players’ minds overflowed with optimism at the opportunity to be taught by an NFL veteran. They studied to improve their game. The entire team struggled with a need for determination and control. That was because of experiences related to poverty and lack of adequate role models.
Chapter 2: The Comeback Begins
“If we need to win, we need the determination to play football the proper way,” said Coach Ward to her new team. “You’ve reached the bottom. Now this team moves up,” added John Preston about the Bandits’ lack of success.
Washington collaborated with Coach Ward and Preston to enhance his direction in life and eclipse his disability. The coaches helped Washington learn the correct way to develop into a running back. Washington practiced different catching and carrying drills to improve his game.
“I need to develop into a better quarterback,” said Michael Banner. He was the tallest player on the roster with a powerful but inefficient arm. Michael Banner was African-American with an Afro, brown eyes, and a muscular build perfect for quarterbacks.
“We demand our quarterback to throw to any of our eligible receivers. Our running backs need to keep possession of the football without dropping it. Pay attention to the football when thrown to you. Catch and run the football toward the goal line for a touchdown. We’re a working, well-lubricated team,” said Coach Ward.
“This team requires an offensive line that follows blocking assignments. This team scores more points if the offensive line follows assignments,” said Coach Ward. “Defense is important. Keep opponents from scoring points in every game,” declared Assistant Coach Preston. His father used to be a defensive end during a six-year career in the NFL. The Bandits’ defensive squad was undisciplined. They gave up more than forty points every game.
“I want to be a more effective defensive player,” said Jose Torres, the starting defensive tackle, who had a medium skin tone, brown hair, brown eyes, and an above-average frame. “You need the proper diet and exercise,” said Coach Ward about Torres’ overall health.
A free safety named Roberto Sanchez wanted to make interceptions without getting penalized. Sanchez is Hispanic with a tall build, dark hair, and deep brown eyes. He was the quickest player on the Bandit’s defensive roster.
Every defensive player wanted Coach Ward to improve their defensive techniques. She agreed to teach the full team on how to become as dangerous as possible and taught them coping skills as well. Coach Ward gave every player a different football book to read before practice the following week. Those books helped develop their game on the field.
“Make sure everybody reviews those books!” said Coach Ward while the players went home. Most Bandit players lived in the projects on Chicago’s South Side while fewer than ten players lived in separate houses and apartments.
Michael Banner studied his quarterback techniques and throwing a football into an old tire in an empty schoolyard. The Chicago Police spotted him trespassing on school property. He ended up throwing the football to his best friend, Will Hughes, who became the Bandits’ primary wide receiver after that meeting. Hughes was African-American, with deep brown eyes, a dark-colored buzz cut, and a lean frame.
Washington developed into a better runner because of his P.E. teacher’s football drills. The full team accepted Washington as their running back, and every Bandit player improved their techniques. Coach Ward and Assistant Coach Preston watched different football DVDs, old VCR tapes from earlier games and studied coaching football to enhance their coaching techniques. They made more trick plays possible with their quarterback, Michael Banner. Ward and Preston talked about playing their first opponent, the West Side Warriors.
The Warriors and the Bandits were both inexperienced teams with similar coaching and playing styles. Coach Ward reminded everybody to play their positions as described in the playbook. Let’s start the first game of the South Side Bandits’ comeback campaign.
Chapter 3: The First Game
The Bandits-Warriors game started with a long Warrior kickoff return to Albert Morris. Like the Bandits, the Warriors players were minorities from impoverished environments. Andy Russell, the Warriors’ quarterback, was one of the few white players on the team.
Russell is a white player with spiky blond hair, blue eyes, average height, and a powerful physique rushed for two yards to start the Warrior offensive drive. The Bandits’ defensive end Quentin Parks tackled Russell hard. While getting up, Russell said to Parks, “You won’t catch me next time.”
The next two plays resulted in two incomplete passes for the Warriors, and a Warrior punt ended their offensive stand. Coach Ward grew enthusiastic about the Bandits’ defensive performance. The first play of the drive started on the Bandits’ 15-yard line.
Two rushes totaling six yards by Washington started the Bandits’ offensive series, and that drive ended with a dropped pass by Gordon Young, the Bandits’ number one tight end. The Bandits punted the ball fifty yards. The Warriors fumbled while returning the punt, which the Bandits recovered.
A touchdown pass from Banner to Hughes and the successful extra point made the score Bandits 7, Warriors 0. “Our Bandits will execute the Warriors!” said Paul Longlegs, the Native American kicker. A defensive battle for both sides finished the first quarter with neither team getting beyond midfield.
The second quarter started with an interception by Ahmad Hassan, the primary cornerback for the Bandits. Banner’s second touchdown pass to Hughes happened two plays later. Jose Torres sacked the Warrior quarterback to open the next Bandit defensive stand. One of the Bandit linebackers tackled the Warriors fullback before Roberto Sanchez deflected a Warrior pass to end the Bandit defensive stand.
A good punt return by Randy Crawford, the Bandits’ return specialist followed. Crawford was African-American with a slim frame, dark dreadlocks, dark-colored eyes, and average stature. He was the smartest player on the team, a prodigy at his school, and from an affluent family. Crawford’s punt return ended up in field goal range for Paul Longlegs.
Michael Banner threw an incomplete pass to Gordon Young. A successful field goal by Longlegs ended the Bandits offensive drive. The halftime score was Bandits 17, Warriors 6 after a pair of Warrior field goals.
Ward and Preston’s halftime pep talk cheered the Bandits players. There was room for improvement on defense to prevent the Warriors from scoring more points. The entire team shouted, “Go, Bandits, Go!” before they came back onto the field. The Bandits scored three more touchdowns in the second half. The final score Bandits 38, Warriors 13 on the Bandits’ home turf.
“Thirty-eight points in one game is great. This team scored thirty-eight points last season!” said Coach Ward after the game. Coach Ward talked to Michael Banner’s parents about their son’s performance at quarterback. She was preparing for the Bandits’ next opponent in the North Side Norsemen.
The Norsemen were a tough bunch of kids winning championships every year. The Norsemen squad came from wealthier backgrounds. Most of the team was white with a few African-American and Asian players.
Their coach was Dirk Olson, who had grayish blonde hair with a buzz-cut, grayish blue eyes, average height, and stocky build. Both Mr. Olson and Preston played in the NFL before they became coaches. Mr. Olson played as a tough-as-nails defensive tackle for seven seasons. A helmet-to-helmet concussion forced him to retire from football.
Chapter 4: The Second Game
One week later, the team was ready for the North Side Norsemen. William Smith, an inner-city football coach, gave the team a pep talk. Coach Smith led his team to four state football championships and created ten NFL stars. The speech was about Coach Smith’s high school football team’s struggles and turnaround. Both Coach Smith’s high school team and the Bandits experienced the same struggles before turning it around.
Finally, the Bandits rushed onto the field to face the Norsemen. A North Side crowd shouted a war chant intended to weaken the Bandits. The group made David Washington nervous. Coach Ward calmed Washington with a pep talk after someone called Washington a “reject” and “moron.”
The Norsemen started the game with two runs equaling three yards, and an incomplete pass preceded a Norsemen punt. Michael Banner ran for two quarterback scrambles before the Bandits received a ten-yard holding penalty. Banner threw a deep pass that resulted in an interception that resulted in a pick-six to give the Norsemen the quick lead.
The interception gave Coach Ward concern about Banner’s throwing mechanics. The Bandits’ offense struggled against the dominant Norsemen defense. A Norsemen touchdown occurred before halftime. The score at halftime was Norsemen 14, Bandits 0. Ward and Preston talked about the team’s performance during the first half. “I agree,” Coach Ward replied to Preston. “We must give Washington confidence,” said Preston as the second half started.
A sixteen-yard rush by David Washington started the Bandit offense in the second half. A touchdown pass from Banner to Hughes made the score Norsemen 14, Bandits 7. The Bandits intercepted the ball from Paul Johnson, the Norsemen’s quarterback, and scored quickly tying the ball game. Halfway through the third quarter, Jose Torres forced a fumble, resulting in the Bandits retaking the lead.
Roberto Sanchez recovered the fumble for the touchdown. When the fourth quarter started, the score was 21-14 Bandits. Paul Johnson threw a touchdown pass to Henry Bruce, the Norsemen’s go-to wide receiver. The Bandits received two pass interference penalties in a row, allowing the Norsemen to score quickly.
The score was 21-21 before Paul Longlegs kicked a game-winning forty-five-yard field goal to give the Bandits a three-point victory. The final score was Bandits 24 Norsemen 21. “The good news is that we defeated a hard team. The bad news is Michael Banner needs improvement throwing the football. He should throw to one of the available receivers,” said Coach Ward after the game.
Chapter 5: The Next Few Games
The Bandits won games against the Loop Loopers, the Waukegan Lakers, the Joliet Jesters, and the Aurora Stars. The Bandits lost another tight game against the North Side Norsemen at home. A rematch with the Warriors ended the regular season before two Bandits players quit the team for family and personal reasons.
Longlegs left the team for undetermined family reasons. That meant Preston was the kicker for the rest of the season. Preston can still kick the football well for his age. “Longlegs made every field goal he ever attempted this season. That talent flushed down the drain!” replied Coach Ward to Preston.
Preston volunteered to be the Bandits’ kicker because of a rule saying that coaches could play for their team in the late season or risk giving up games. The full squad allowed Preston to be their kicker despite his age and ability to kick. Preston did kicking exercises and attempted field goals. That made him ready for the rest of the season.
“Strike the Warriors. Play for the championship!” said Coach Ward to her players. Every player shouted, “Go, Bandits, Go!” before the game. That game took place on the Warriors’ home field. The Bandits won the rematch against the Warriors. A three-way tie on top of the league standings preceded the regular season finale. The Bandits, Warriors, and the Norsemen each had six wins and one loss before the last game of the regular season.
Chapter 6: The Final Game of the Regular Season
The final regular-season game opened with the Bandits stopping Albert Morris’ kick return. A hard hit by Roberto Sanchez ended that kick return and injured Albert Morris. Andy Russell threw for two first downs to Zachary Foster, the Warriors’ running back. Foster rushed the rest of the distance for the Warrior touchdown.
Randy Crawford for the Bandits ran for a fifty-five-yard kick return. A quick Michael Banner touchdown pass to Will Hughes followed to tie the score up at seven apiece. “Old guy is now the kicker. He’s no Longlegs, not that it’s a great loss!” said one of the Warrior players. The Warriors’ next offensive drive resulted in two short runs by Foster. Quentin Parks deflected an Andy Russell pass before the Warriors punted the ball.
Michael Banner completed two consecutive passes to David Washington totaling twenty-six yards. An eight-yard rush by Washington followed. Desmond Young, the fullback, ran for seven yards on two carries and a ten-yard reception before the Warriors committed a roughing the passer penalty that pushed the Bandits closer to the end zone. The next play produced a touchdown run by Michael Banner in a quarterback scramble. Banner got excited. The score after the first quarter was Bandits 14, Warriors 7.
The next two Warrior offensive drives resulted in Bandit interceptions that translated to a John Preston field goal and a Will Hughes touchdown reception. A defensive battle between both teams took place the rest of the second quarter. The halftime score was Bandits 24, Warriors 7.
“We’re two-quarters away from going to the championship game! We’re up by seventeen points to show it!” said Coach Ward during halftime. The second half started with Washington losing a fumble, and the Warriors recovered that fumble.
Andy Russell threw a quick touchdown strike to Albert Morris. The Bandits still led 24-14 before David Washington lost possession of the football for the second time. That Warrior offensive drive led to a Warrior field goal with three minutes left in the third quarter. The Bandits still led 24-17 after that field goal.
“We’re coming back to whip your asses!” declared Andy Russell to Coach Ward. “No, you won’t. This team will play in the championship game,” replied Coach Ward back to Russell. “We’ll see about that,” said Russell. Another John Preston field goal made the score 27-17 Bandits at the end of the third quarter.
“Your team is one-quarter away from losing this game,” said Coach Ward to Alan Quinn, the Warriors’ coach. Quinn used to be an outstanding college football coach at Illinois Christian University. His erratic behavior ended his coaching career. Quinn worked as a manager at a sporting goods store on Chicago’s West Side. He had silver hair, blue eyes, average stature, a stout physique, and a temper that rivaled Bob Knight. “This team will beat your sorry asses,” replied Quinn back to Coach Ward.
A successful Warrior onside kick recovery followed that touchdown. The Warriors made it to the end zone on their next two offensive drives. A successful two-point conversion came after the second touchdown after the first two-point conversion attempt failed. That made the score 31-27 Warriors halfway through the fourth quarter.
Coach Quinn became enthusiastic after the two touchdowns his team scored in the first part of the fourth quarter. “That’s pathetic. Men will always coach football, not women,” Quinn said. Quinn’s remarks made Ward boil with rage. She remained calm as she thought of ways to help defeat the Warriors.
A decent kick return by Crawford started the next Bandit offensive drive putting the team closer to the game-winning touchdown. David Washington rushed for three yards before a Warrior defensive end pulled on his jersey. That resulted in a minor back injury for Washington.
Banner completed a touchdown pass to Hughes from twenty yards away. The next two plays were short runs by Desmond Young, who was Washington’s replacement. Michael Banner tried to throw the football to Young. One of the Warrior players made a helmet-to-helmet sack of Banner.
“Is it football or a back-alley brawl?” replied Quinn to Tommy Sands, a member of the Warriors defensive line. “I tried to stop him,” said Sands. “I’ll show you how to play!” said Quinn. Quinn kicked Sands in the shin before the referees ejected Quinn from the game. Michael Banner ended up with a concussion after the helmet-to-helmet hit.
The Bandits were five yards away from the winning touchdown after the Warrior penalty. They took a time-out after two short gains by Desmond Young before Coach Ward threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Will Hughes. A minimal Warrior kick return ended the game. The final score was Bandits 33, Warriors 31.
“We’re going to the championship game,” said Coach Ward to her players. “David Washington and Michael Banner won’t be playing in the championship game. That means I will be your quarterback for this crucial game,” said Coach Ward. The entire team was excited about getting to see Coach Ward play.
The news came out that Washington’s injury was not as severe as the team expected. That made Washington eligible to play for the championship game. The Bandits would play the Norsemen for the third time that season—this time for higher stakes.
Chapter 7: The Championship Game
The night before the championship game, Coach Ward and Assistant Coach Preston treated the team to pizza. Dirk Olson’s team showed up unannounced. “What do we have here? A bunch of incompetent cheaters who will lose the championship game tomorrow,” said Olson.
“We’re not cheaters. I’m the ideal coach to win the championship,” replied Coach Ward. “I’m a better kicker than your team has,” replied Preston to Olson. “Our kicker’s not scrawny. He’s as dependable as your old senile feet!” Olson shouted back. “I’m the quarterback for the future champions. I have the jersey to prove it!” said Ward to Olson.
The next day, Coach Ward showed up wearing her old uniform. “I wore number twelve for a reason. It’s the number the great quarterbacks have worn,” said Coach Ward to her players. It’s been a dozen years since the Bandits had a winning season.
“I used to be a kicker in the NFL. A blood clot ended my career. I thought of coming back to the NFL after that blood clot healed. My legs weren’t as good for kicking,” said Assistant Coach Preston. “Let’s win that championship!” said Coach Ward. The Bandits ran out onto Soldier Field.
A young woman with an angelic voice singing a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The crowd cheered for that singer, who sang at a nearby church every Sunday. The Norsemen won the coin toss, and they preferred to kick the football off to the Bandits.
“All right, we’re four quarters away from becoming champions. We will beat the Norsemen to a pulp!” said Coach Ward to the whole team. An injured Michael Banner attended the game to support his team. “GO BANDITS!” said the entire team.
The Norsemen kicked the football off to Randy Crawford who had a kickoff return for thirty-five yards. He almost lost the football during that return. He recovered it with his quick moves and perfect vision. “Let’s get a touchdown on our first drive!” said Coach Ward to her offense. A touchdown pass from Coach Ward to Gordon Young ended that Bandit offensive drive.
John Preston kicked the football out-of-bounds. That gave the Norsemen good field position at the Bandit forty-yard line. “Oh, Ward is better than I thought she’d be!” said Paul Johnson. The Bandits sacked Johnson twice during the Norsemen’s first offensive drive. An incomplete pass intended for Henry Bruce followed those Bandit sacks. The Norsemen punt came out-of-bounds at the fifteen-yard line. The Bandits were eighty-five yards away from taking a 14-0 lead.
Two rushes totaling nine yards by David Washington started the next Bandit offensive drive. A holding penalty forced the offense ten yards back after that second rush. Coach Ward threw the football to Gordon Young on third and 11 before the Norsemen committed a 15-yard pass interference penalty. Eventually, this led to the Bandit’s second touchdown of the quarter.
The Bandits defense limited the Norsemen offense during the next two Norsemen offensive stands. Coach Ward threw another touchdown to Will Hughes made the score Bandits 21, Norsemen 0 at the beginning of the second quarter.
An unexpected interruption happened three minutes into the second quarter before a crazed Norsemen fan ran out towards the field yelling nonsense about the Bandits cheating. That crazed fan took the football from John Preston’s kicking tee and threw the football to one of the Norsemen players before security escorted the fan away from the field.
Paul Johnson threw a touchdown pass to Henry Bruce before a failed two-point conversion attempt. The score remained 21-6 for the Bandits over the Norsemen at halftime. “This team is one half away from a championship. Keep playing smart football from here on out! This team can do it!” said Coach Ward to her players in the locker room. Dirk Olson was carrying on with his players about the Norsemen performance in the first half. Both teams entered the field right after it rained.
A series of short pass completions started the second half for the Norsemen. The Bandits defensive stand stopped the Norsemen at midfield. A successful Norsemen field goal was the only score the rest of the third quarter. The score at the end of the third quarter was Bandits 21, Norsemen 9.
“We’ve held the Norsemen to a field goal in the third quarter. They have time to defeat us! Keep running with the football as much as possible. Keep that football even if it’s raining outside,” said Coach Ward to her offense.
The Bandits gave up a huge touchdown run by Russ Wilford, the Norsemen running back. The Bandits led 21-16 after the Norsemen touchdown. “Our lead is slipping away. We need a good offense, or we’re toast,” said Coach Ward after the Norsemen score.
Coach Ward completed both of her passes to Washington and Young to start the Bandits’ next offensive drive. Washington and Desmond Young both ran hard-fought gains. Desmond Young scored a touchdown to end the drive before Coach Ward scrambled for the successful two-point conversion. That made the score Bandits 29, Norsemen 16 with two minutes left in the game. “I’m impressed as the quarterback, aren’t I?” Coach Ward grinned to Preston. “Yes, yes, you are a good quarterback, Coach Ward,” said Preston.
The Norsemen were down to their last chance to clinch the championship. Paul Johnson completed perfect passes to Henry Bruce and Russ Wilford. The Norsemen made a successful trick play with a reverse pass going to Henry Bruce. Bruce then threw the football to Paul Johnson for a much-needed touchdown for the Norsemen. The score was Bandits 29, Norsemen 23 after the successful extra-point with forty seconds left in the game.
The Bandits punted the football after three short gains by Washington before the Bandits punted the ball. A minimal Norsemen punt return happened before Paul Johnson threw one last desperation pass before Roberto Sanchez sacked him. That gave the Bandits a 29-23 victory over the Norsemen.
The Bandits had finally won the championship after years of embarrassment. “We have become the champions. I always believed you could be champions after endless embarrassment,” said Coach Ward. Ward and Preston hoisted the championship trophy for the local media.
Allison Ward became the first female head coach in NCAA college football history. She brought John Preston to become her special teams’ coach at the college level. Through it all, Coach Ward stayed connected with her former players, who all graduated from high school. Every player she coached during that comeback season did well in college. David Washington became the first college and pro football player on the Autism spectrum. The Bandits savored their comeback success for years to come.
About the Author:
Jared Alexander is an aspiring author with Autism living in Shenandoah, Iowa. He previously published, “The Nature Poem,” for the High School Writer newspaper when he was a senior at South Page High School in College Springs, Iowa during the 2000-2001 school year.