He is out by the football field now, watching his former players practice on a clear, crisp late-September day. But the truth is, he looks uneasy in his new role, standing on the sideline in his street clothes while his old assistant coach puts the team through its paces. The players look a little out of sync too, some of them casting furtive glances at Shannon, that imposing figure who drilled them so fiercely that they could hear his voice in their sleep, and who became like a father to many of them. One player, on his way to the blocking sled, detours past Shannon and says shyly, "Thanks, man. You taught me a lot," to which Shannon nods his own thanks. And then Shannon is alone again, trying to figure out if this is it, if he has coached his last game of high school football in the city that once honored him as a beacon of hope amid so much despair.
"It's difficult to wean myself of this," he says, squinting in the afternoon sun. "I've been doing this a long, long time."
East St. Louis has been called America's Soweto. Its population is 99% black. The city, which lies in the Illinois floodplain just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, is a flat, forsaken sprawl of charred wooden shacks, boarded-up strip malls, and liquor stores guarded by iron bars.
In the 1980s East St. Louis ran out of money to collect trash, and the city's garbage—up to 40,000 tons of it—piled high in backyards until people got fed up and set it on fire. Today, though garbage pickup has resumed, you can see where sparks from trash fires caught and burned down people's homes. You can see where raw sewage from the town's crumbling waste system backed up and flooded streets and playgrounds.
The city's school system has been similarly ravaged. Faced with a $10 million deficit a few years ago, the district laid off almost 100 teachers. Some classes ballooned to 50 pupils and had to be held in gyms; in a few cases, because of the shortage of teachers, classes had to be supervised by students or by janitors. School supplies are rare to nonexistent. Textbooks are often missing whole chapters. Science labs are 30 years behind the times. In one East St. Louis school, volunteers used to walk the hallways with whistles because the fire alarms didn't work. Several schools have been closed periodically because sewage overflowed into their buildings. In Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol's searing indictment of the country's poorest school districts, the author quotes one East Side student as saying: "Go and look into a toilet here if you would like to know what life is like for students in this city."
East St. Louis was in better shape 24 years ago, when Shannon arrived looking for work as a high school football coach. He and his wife, Jeanette, decided to stay, and Bob took an assistant's job at Lincoln High. Then, in 1976, he became head coach at East Side.
From the beginning Shannon was out to teach something more than football. He himself had used athletics to transcend an impoverished childhood. One of 11 children of a sawmill worker and a domestic in Natchez, Miss., Shannon spent much of his youth living in a mill-owned shantytown so decrepit that he could look through cracks in the floorboards and see chickens under his house. As a teenager he had a variety of jobs such as harvesting pecans and picking cotton. When he found work delivering furniture to the richer homes in town, he saw what money could buy—plush carpeting, a warm hearth—and vowed to get that for himself.
And he did, largely through football. Although he knew no one who had gone to college, Shannon decided he would go. With the help of his two high school football coaches, he used his limited physical gifts and his abundant appetite for work to earn an athletic scholarship to Tennessee State, where he played quarterback and—after a break from school to attend the Washington Redskins' training camp under coach Vince Lombardi—earned a degree in education. That, in turn, led to his employment in East St. Louis.
Taking over the football team at East Side, Shannon saw a familiar look of yearning on his players' faces as they stared out the bus window on the way to games in more prosperous towns. He saw their shame when other teams, arriving at East Side for day games—night games were banned as unsafe—looked around the neighborhood and asked the refs if they could play without a halftime break in order to go home earlier.
"I didn't let our players get discouraged," Shannon says. "We just worked that much harder, took pride in showing the world that kids from East St. Louis could learn and achieve, just like those suburban kids." Indeed, you can walk through the grandstands at an East Side football game today, and men who were coached by Shannon years ago will tell you how he changed their lives, how playing on his football squad was the best lesson they ever got in how to succeed.