Over the 20 years he coached football at East St. Louis Senior High, Bob Shannon developed a brief yet arresting tour of the athletic facilities at the school, which belongs to one of the most impoverished cities in the U.S. Shannon would begin at the practice field, a rutted lot behind the pale redbrick school building, where he used weed killer to burn in yard lines because the school district never had enough money to hire a maintenance crew. The grass grew so high that once the lot was used as a dumping ground for a bullet-riddled corpse, which a few students discovered early one morning.
Continuing the tour, Shannon would pull out a huge key chain and open the heavy steel door that leads to the football locker room. Or is it an abandoned cellar? The room, dark because of broken lightbulbs, smells of sweat and rot. The rusting, battered lockers (some from a meatpacking plant that closed decades ago) gape like open wounds. The floor is filthy and covered with pools of water, though the showers are bone-dry—they haven't worked in more than 12 years.
The next stop would be Shannon's office, actually a storage room that he shared with a couple of rats. Then there would be a swing through the weight room, which often had no heat, forcing football players to lift in their coats on cold days.
Usually, Shannon finished his tour with a look at the school's ancient gym, which was closed when this school year began because it was contaminated with asbestos. For a few weeks physical education classes had to be switched to the cafeteria, where students would sit around for an hour doing nothing and feeling victimized by one of the worst-run school systems in the country.
The 50-year-old Shannon—whose handsome features, powerful build and sonic-boom voice made him a towering presence around the school—would conduct his tour to illustrate a moral parable: how a group of young black athletes from a desolate city, a place where a quarter of the adult population is unemployed and two thirds of the total population is on public aid, could attain stunning success on the gridiron. From 1976 through the second game of the '95 season, Shannon's teams were 194-35, winning six Illinois state titles and two national championships and, over one span, an astonishing 44 games in a row.
"But football here has never been just about winning," Shannon says, stretching out his arms and vowels like a revivalist preacher. "It's been a road out for these kids." He offers a sly smile. "Some people protest by wearing Malcolm X T-shirts. I protest by taking undisciplined guys from the streets and turning them into focused, proud men." Shannon has helped more than 100 players escape East St. Louis through college scholarships, and two alums of East Side (as the high school is popularly known) are now playing in the pros: Bryan Cox with the Miami Dolphins and Dana Howard with the St. Louis Rams.
These days, however, Shannon is no longer conducting his tour or helping young athletes escape the city. Having chafed for years under a school district that is now being investigated for financial mismanagement and corruption, and having been repeatedly denied sufficient money for his football program, Shannon announced last spring that he wanted to become East Side's athletic director, so he could control the athletic department's funds. The man who held that job, Arthur May, angrily refused to give it up and threatened to have Shannon fired. Then Shannon began following the money trail in the department and accused May of lying to the school district when requesting funds for the football team's meals on a road trip. According to Shannon, May told him to mind his own business.
"Now that made me mad," Shannon says, his eyes widening, his hands clenching into fists. "I'm from Mississippi. I take my right to protest seriously. And this is a protest—against a system that doesn't care if money is missing, if the kids don't have the right shoes or a safe place to practice. That's not what high school sports is supposed to be about."
And so, on Sept. 2, Shannon announced that he would give up the job that had brought national glory to East Side and to him. He was tired of fighting unsuccessfully for funds, and he felt that because of his conflict with May, his presence was doing the football team more harm than good. East St. Louis mayor Gordon Bush, among many others, urged Shannon to reconsider, but while Shannon was thinking it over, the school board hastily convened a special meeting and voted 6-0 to accept his resignation. (The board usually decides on rehiring coaches in November.) One board member accused Shannon of airing "dirty linens" in public.
"As much as I love coaching football, they thought I'd never be able to walk away," says Shannon, who still teaches phys ed at East Side. "So what stronger statement could I have made but to walk away?"