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My Kind of Hero


Michelle Voegele
Dr. Patterson and Dr. Collins
English 112 Honors
7 May 2009
My Kind of Hero

"No matter what stands in your way, success is possible if only you work hard enough. They are the future of East St. Louis, and it is to them and to that future that this book is dedicated" (Horrigan ix). This quote, from East St. Louis Flyers football coach Bob Shannon, embodies the spirit of East St. Louis and of its many important athletic heroes. Yet the rest of the world tries to generate negative publicity about East St. Louis. East St. Louis has generated many sport greats such as Jackie Joyner Kersee and her older brother Al Joyner, Harry Edward, and many others. Newspapers and media only report the crime and corruption of East St. Louis. Reporters often neglect to report how various improvement associations work to better the East St. Louis community and the lives of the next generation. Most people see sports as an extracurricular activity, but what happens when sports become the single most important aspect of a student's life? This scenario lives in East St. Louis. Athletic activities fuel the community. Students realize they must exceed in academics or athletics to leave East St. Louis and students more often choose athletics. Whether this is good or bad can be argued, but it is more important that the children of East St. Louis possess a positive influence in their life as a result of playing sports. Athletic achievement in East St. Louis give its young people a sense of historical greatness and community membership, a way to excel, a productive not destructive pastime, and an insight into the necessary skills, such as leadership, needed to succeed in college and the job market.

Many people argue that athletics negatively affect a student's academic performance. On the one hand, athletics may be the only reason athletes attend school. On the other hand, athletics may inspire students to succeed in other activities. People of today and days past still argue that schools put too much emphasis on athletic success as opposed to academic success as in the article "Are High School Athletics Overdone?"

We have coaches for basketball, football, track, etc., who give their whole time to their particular work, creating an interest, picking out the best students in the school, and training them carefully, but in the smaller schools we do not have persons whose direct responsibility is to do these same things for the intellectual phases of the school (213).

Even more astonishing is the low success rate of high school athletes, especially minority athletes, to go professional. This leads one to wonder why East St. Louis Senior High School produces so many outstanding athletic teams. Deborah J. Anderson of The University of New Mexico, through her analysis of the High School and Beyond (HSB) study and the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS), gives reasonable evidence for a correlated, not causal, relationship between athletics and academics.

In her publication, Anderson acknowledges the over-emphasis on high school athletics and the gap between high school athletic success and professional athletic success. Many students, despite the dangerously low chances of going professional, dream of becoming the next Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Babe Ruth, Michael Jordon, or Tiger Woods, but the reality remains that either students will most likely work in the traditional job market. Anderson writes, "Emphasis on sports may benefit society, for example, if playing ball provides alternatives to gangs and associated criminal activity. In addition, the youths may benefit if playing sports is in fact positively associated with educational attainment and future labor market success" (2). What negative repercussions could dreaming possibly have on a student who finds him or herself without any other channel of escape other than athletics? However, one cannot deny that coaches, teachers, and parents need to acknowledge the low success rate and not provide athletes with a false sense of their future. This especially applies to athletes of East St. Louis, considering the stigmas associated with the city and how that hinders students.

East St. Louis, located in St. Clair County, Illinois, shows a population loss of 6.9% each year, whereas the state of Illinois is growing at 3.3%. The conditions in East St. Louis do affect the students and other residents. According to the East St. Louis real estate profile on, as sponsored by REALTORS®, East St. Louis suffers from a 12.9% unemployment rate, which, depending on the season, is almost twice the national average as stated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition, the city saw a 20% increase in crime in 2007, yet fortunately, in 2008, the number of murders dropped from 27 to 17 (Pistor). Crime adversely affects families and, unfortunately, it indirectly affects schools. documents that in 2008, eighty-seven percent of students attending East St. Louis Senior High School classified as low-income, whereas the state averaged forty-one percent of the families as low-income. Negative correlation exists regarding crime and low income. As the amount of low-income families increases, crime tends to rise.

Despite the high crime rate and only 87% attendance race at East St. Louis High School, the school tries its best to engage students. According to the 2008 Illinois School Report Card for East St. Louis Senior High School, teachers in East St. Louis average 15.7 years of experience whereas the state averages 12.4 years. In addition, East St. Louis District 189 pays a comparable salary to the state average; East St. Louis Senior High Schools pays an average of $61,679 and the state of Illinois pays and average of $60,871 ("2008"). As well, the district spends $9,635 per pupil whereas the state averages $8, 340 ("East St. Louis Senior"). Unfortunately, only 86.6 percent of students graduate in School District 189 ("2008").

Growing up in a city known for its corruption and crime cannot make teenage life any easier. Brent Reeves, the Director of Multicultural Affairs at McKendree University and an East St. Louis native, stated, "I always knew growing up in East St. Louis that we had that stigma….The headlines [Belleville News Democrat] are always something negative about East St. Louis." Many people consider high school "hell on Earth" in "normal" high school situations, but East St. Louis is not a "normal" high school situation. Students must cope with academic stress, athletic and extracurricular stress, racial tensions, and the stigma associated with living in East St. Louis.

Despite the undesirable conditions of East St. Louis, the city has born many great athletics teams and athletes. People remember the city for its three main sports: basketball, football, and track. The East St. Louis Senior High School athletic mission statement states:

The ultimate goal of comprehensive health and physical education programs is to aid students in achieving their fullest potential through the acquisition of knowledge and skills necessary to attain healthy levels of well being and to maintain active lifestyles throughout the lifespan… Learners will establish a solid foundation for maintaining healthy, active, and productive lives…Teamwork and cooperative skills are used to work effectively with others, set individual and group goals, solve problems, and enhance the quality of interpersonal relationships… Through mastery of knowledge, skills, and behaviors essential to healthy living, learners will accept responsibility and consequences for personal decisions and behaviors. The result of persons leading healthy and physically active lifestyles is seen in an increased capacity for effective work, positive behavioral choices, and increased academic success ("Vision").

With such a vigorous and precise goal, the school district has worked tirelessly to make a name for itself throughout the years. The most notable sport, track and field, has yielded many exceptional award-winning athletes such as Jackie Joyner-Kersee and her brother Al Joyner. In the past thirty-five years, According to the Illinois High School Association, East St. Louis Senior High won 10 state titles and placed second 9 times. In addition, ESLSH basketball has excelled. The basketball team has not had an under 500 season in over twenty years ("Season"). The discipline of East St. Louis athletes clearly shows through their ability to perform consistently. The last better-known athletic team, the East St. Louis Senior High Flyers Football team, has dominated high school football for several years. Under Bob Shannon, the Flyers won 6 State Championships and placed second twice ("Season"). Bob Shannon started a dynasty of great athletes that still carries on to today's athletes, especially considering their recent 2008 State Championship Title.

Of all East St. Louis athletes, Jackie Joyner-Kersee influenced athletics the most. Jackie Joyner-Kersee grew up in East St. Louis on Piggott Avenue between 14th and 15th streets (Joyner-Kersee). She led the life of a normal East St. Louis citizen. Jackie first sparked her interest in sports at the Mary Brown Center where she participated in a dance class. After the death of her dance instructor, Jackie moved on to track and field and basketball (Joyner-Kersee 37-43). She dealt with the stigma of not only being from East St. Louis, but of being an African American female competing in athletics after the passage of Title IX . Title IX redefined athletics and gave Jackie the chance to compete in athletics.

Just as Title IX redefined athletics, so did Jackie Joyner Kersee. A pioneer of African American female athletes, Jackie stormed her way from intercollegiate athlete to Olympic champion. Jackie's inspiration, her mother, allowed her to fight through stigmas and negative feelings. The support of Jackie's father, mother, and family gave her the edge over other competitors. She wrote in her autobiography, "Growing up, I could always count on Momma to be my champion. Her constant encouragement formed my deep well of inspiration" (34). With her inspiration in mind, Jackie earned her way to the Jr. Olympics, the U.S. Championships, NCAA Championships, and the Olympic Games in 1984, 1988, 1992, and 1996 (Joyner).

After succeeding at the college, world, and Olympic athletic levels, Jackie Joyner-Kersee returned to her hometown and all could see her passion for the town. Kersee founded the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation whose mission is, "to provide youth, adults, and families with the resources to improve their quality of life and to enhance communities worldwide, with special attention directed to East St. Louis, Illinois." Through her foundation, Jackie planned to provide for the youth of East St. Louis what the Mary Brown Center provided for her as a child. According to the "About the Founder," Jackie Joyner-Kersee proudly opened the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center (JJK Center) in 2000 in her hometown of East St. Louis, Illinois. By leading the cause, Jackie helped the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation raise more than $12 million to build a safe haven for young people to come learn, play and contribute back to their community ("About"):

The JJK Center provides services to thousands of families and youth in the metropolitan St. Louis area. Offering a variety of educational and recreational activities for youth and adults including; after-school tutoring, youth sports leagues, nutrition and health education, character/leadership workshops, fitness for seniors, as well as many other important community related programs. The Center is an integral part of impacting and revitalizing the East St. Louis community and their youth ("About").

Jackie Joyner-Kersee never forgot her roots. Her deep connection to East S. Louis and her love for her community shined bright through her efforts to help the youth of East. St. Louis. Through her efforts, Jackie has inspired many East St. Louisians and many others to dream big but never to forget their roots.

In addition to athletics giving students aspirations to become great and succeed, athletics provide students with the necessary skills to excel in future education or the job market. According to Deborah J. Anderson, "Participation in sports may build self-confidence, assertiveness, and critical-thinking skills, leading to improved academic performance" (6). In "Table 3" of her scholarly work, Anderson compares the means (averages) of the HSB and NELS. Her analysis shows that athletes, whether white or minority, possess a higher tendency to finish high school and continue their education. These statistics easily coincide with the idea that athletics, because they require a minimum Grade Point Average (GPA) to compete, motivates students to complete their schoolwork. In some instances, academic requirements inspire athletes to excel and work even harder to meet the necessary requirements to compete.

Not only does an athlete learn important job skills, such as discipline and hard work, he or she also learns to succeed. Bob Shannon, former coach of the East St. Louis Senior High School Flyers Football team, stated, "But they've got to have a reason to put up with me, a need to belong to something or the feeling of the challenge. That's the best reason, the need for a challenge. I tell all the kids that. If you come out for football, and you stay, then you'll know there is some reward in doing that. The reward is that I teach them to succeed" (Horrigan 12). Every student defines success differently; some students see success as academic excellence and receiving exceptional marks in all subject areas. Others see success as being able to rebuild a Chevy 327 Small Block engine. Athletes see success as winning an important game or going to the state championship. The key to succeeding for students is to establish the goal and work towards completing it. Third parties must not focus on a student's choice of goals, but the importance of establishing a goal. In Jackie Joyner-Kersee's autobiography, she wrote, "At the start of each school year, Momma asked each of us: 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' The answer wasn't so important. She just wanted us to always think about and plan for our future" (33). For many students, "Football… is but a means to an end. For these kids the end is finding a way out of East St. Louis, or in a way to stay in East St. Louis on their own terms" (Horrigan 12). Athletics allow students to imagine life outside of East St. Louis because traveling for athletic games leads to greater cross-cultural interaction. The emphasis on sports in East St. Louis gives students a chance to learn to succeed and provide themselves with the confidence to succeed.

Not only do athletics provide a constructional outlet for students and teach important skills and success, athletics also inspire the community by creating a bond and a reason for celebration. "It's easy to go out and cheer for a guy who scores six touchdowns or forty points in a basketball game [rather] than the guy who's in the library studying getting an A on the test. There's no cheering for that" (Reeves). This quote demonstrates the majority of cities around the United States. Athletics, in any community, often receives much more praise and recognition than academics. So why do people chastise East St. Louis for embracing its athletic success? People do not want to believe that East St. Louis functions and can produce great athletes.

Considering East St. Louis athletics, one can easily see the influence on the community. Athletics give any community a uniting bond. Consider a St. Louis Cardinals versus Chicago Cubs game. Each team's fans, though different in location, come together to cheer on their favorite team and players. One easily sees this dynamic at any high school athletic competition, as demonstrated in part by each East St. Louis Senior High School's fight cheer:

I say Eastside, you say Fliers.
I say who's that, you say Fliers.
Who's that?
I say what side? You say Eastside.
What side?
East Side (Horrigan).

Athletics boost community morale and yet it benefits the student athletes as well. Students gain important interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. These skills, including discipline and leadership, help students succeed in their education and their future employment. Taking into account the benefits of athletics in every community, why does the media focus on East St. Louis athletics in a negative way? The negative media coverage in part causes the negative stigma associated with East St. Louis. Brent Reeve, an East St. Louis native, commented, "Overtime, because then it became a predominately African American town, then that's I think when the real negative words, sayings, phrases, things like that came to make the town [East St. Louis] infamous instead of famous." Illinois must recognize its mistake and start to build up East St. Louis into the significant and historical city that it is and will always be.

Works Cited

"2008 Illinois Report Card: East St. Louis Senior High." Illinois State Board of Education. 2009. East St. Louis School District 189. 29 April 2009. <>.

"About the Founder." Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation. 2008. Jackie Joyner-Kersee. 29 April 2009. <>.

Anderson, Deborah J., "If You Let Me Play': The Effects of Participation in High School Athletics on Students' Education and Labor Market Success." Social Science Research Network. 2009. University of Arizona- College of Education. 15 April 2009.

Boynton, Frank D., Frank L. Eversull, Augustus O. Thomas. "Are High School Athletics Overdone?" Journal of Education. Eds. A.E. Winship and A.W. Belding. Vol. 110. Boston, MA: New England Publishing Company. 1929. 212-213.

"East St. Louis (city), Illinois." United States Census Bureau: State and County QuickFacts. 2009. United States Government. 14 April 2009. <>.

"East St. Louis Neighborhood Profile." Yahoo! 2009. 15 April 2009. <>.
"East St. Louis Senior High School." GreatSchools. 2009. 29 April 2009. <>.

Gonzales, Sandra. "Oakland Activist Takes on New Career." San Jose Mercury News. 23 September 2000. 4 May, 2009. <>.

Horrigan, Kevin. The Right Kind of Heroes. New York, New York: Workman Publishing Company, Inc, 1992.

Joyner-Kersee, Jackie and Sonja Steptoe. A Kind of Grace: The Autobiography of the World's Greatest Female Athlete. New York: Warner Books, 1997.

"Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey." Bureau of Labor Statistics. 15 April 2009. United States Government. 15 April 2009. <>.

Pistor, Nicholas J.C. "Metro East Crime Up in 2007." STLToday. 2008. 15 April 2009. <>.

Reeves, Brent. Personal Interview. 9 April 2009.

"Season Summaries: East St. Louis (SR.)" Illinois High School Association. 2009. East St. Louis Senior High School. 29 April 2009. <>.

"Vision for Physical Development and Health Performance." East St. Louis Public Schools. 29 April 2009. < >.

"What is Title IX?" UC Santa Cruz. 2008. Title IX / Sexual Harassment Office. 15 April 2009. <>.

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