Chicago Bears

Remembering Willie May

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Remembering Willie May

The first thing you have to know about Willie May is he was one of the most talented multi-sport athletes in Illinois high school history. In an era that also featured Bloom's Leroy Jackson and Homer Thurman and Thornton's Paul Jackson, Willie gave Blue Island its own sense of pride.

Willie was 6-foot-3 with long legs and great leaping ability. He was an all-conference end on an unbeaten football team, an all-conference center on a basketball team that battled perennial powers Thornton and Bloom in the South Suburban League and led Blue Island to the state track and field championship in 1955.

Watching Willie run the high and low hurdles during a track meet was like watching Mickey Mantle take batting practice. That's when the words "awe" and "awesome" were invented. You were in "awe" of his "awesome" achievements. And he literally took it all in stride.

I was a freshman baseball player at Blue Island in those days. During meets on the adjacent track, baseball practice stopped when it came time for Willie to compete -- in the high hurdles, low hurdles and 880-yard relay. "The gun is up. Willie's gonna run," someone would yell. We'd all stop whatever we were doing and watch."

In 1955, Blue Island (now Eisenhower) sent four runners to the state finals in Champaign, scored 18 points to New Trier's 14 13 and won the state title. It was a monumental achievement. La Grange had won the previous three state titles and five of the last seven. Phillips had won two. And Bloom won the next four in a row.

But Blue Island prevailed as Willie won the 120-yard high hurdles in 14.5 seconds and the 180-yard low hurdles in 19.5. He also ran the third leg on the winning 880-yard relay in 1:29.8 with Ron Helberg, Paul Fuller and Robert Rechord. Rechord finished third in the 220-yard dash for the final three points.

Willie was all legs. He didn't leap over the hurdles, he glided over them. Other hurdlers marveled at his technique but couldn't match it. In the relay, if Helberg or Fuller hadn't already given Blue Island a lead, Willie would sweep around the corner and gobble up huge chunks of cinders with his long stride. Rechord, the anchor, never had to come from behind.

Those memories were brought to mind on Wednesday night when Evanston athletic director Chris Livatino called to deliver the sad news: Willie May had died. He had succumbed to a rare blood disease, amyloidosis. He was 75.

"What will always define Coach May to me," Livatino told reporter Bill Smith of Evanston Now, "was the grace, humility and strength with which he carried himself and his teams at Evanston. In a word, he was nobility. While soft-spoken, the power of his raspy voice inspired and elevated his student-athletes on and off the oval to great heights in track, in school and, most importantly, in life."

May served at Evanston as a physical education teacher, track and field coach and athletic director for more than 40 years. He retired as athletic director and teacher in 2000 and as head track coach in 2006. He continued to serve as assistant track coach and was looking forward to the start of his 45th season. Through it all, he was a mentor to one and all.

"Whether it was a story from another era or just the perfect quote, Coach May knew how to advise a coach on how to handle a situation without having to tell the coach what to do," Livatino said. "He put his trust in your decision and you made sure you did not disappoint. I will miss seeing his slow, steady stride around the fieldhouse track and I will miss his warm smile and confidence in the athletic office."

Born in Alabama in 1936, May earned a football scholarship to Colorado after graduating from Blue Island, then transferred to Indiana, played one season of football as a two-way end in a single platoon system, then realized his future was in track. He won seven Big 10 championships in the hurdles from 1957 to 1959. In 1960, at the Olympics in Rome, he finished second to Lee Calhoun in the 110-meter hurdles in a photo-finish race that May always insisted that he had won. In 1963, he won another silver medal in the Pan American Games.

His former teammate at Blue Island, Ron Helberg, then head track and field coach at Evanston, persuaded May to join his staff in 1967. Helberg won state titles in 1970, 1971, 1972 and 1974 before moving on to Hoffman Estates and Glenbrook South.

May became head track and field coach at Evanston in 1975 and guided the Wildkits to 26 conference titles, including 24 in a row from 1976 to 1999, and the 1979 state title. His teams also were second in 1991 and 1994 and third in 1989 and 1993.

He also produced more than 50 medalists, including Bob McGee, who won 100, high hurdles and low hurdles and ran on the winning mile relay to lead Evanston to the 1979 state title.

In 1983, he became athletic director at Evanston, serving until 2000. He was inducted into the Indiana University Athletic Hall of Fame I 2000, the Illinois Track and Cross-Country Coaches Association's Hall of Fame I 2007 and the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame in 2010. He also was named the most outstanding athlete in the history of Blue Island Community High School.

As a freshman at Blue Island, May played baseball in the spring. But he had trouble hitting Wyman Carey, a hard-throwing lefty who was signed by the Detroit Tigers. So he was "strongly persuaded" to switch to track as a sophomore.

As it turned out, 1995 was a magical year. But May didn't see it coming. Neither did anyone else. Coach Olin Driver's track team didn't win a single meet during the entire season until the state finals. Carroll Nichols was a member of the relay but he was injured and Fuller, a former pole vaulter, replaced him. Rechord sprained an ankle and couldn't run for two weeks.

"We were so uninformed and unsophisticated about what was going on," said May in an interview in 1999. "When we went into the state meet, we never had any idea that we were a contender for the championship."

When they arrived in Champaign, Blue Island was represented by four athletes and five coaches. Oak Park and New Trier were favored to win the team title. But Oak Park didn't advance a single qualifier to the finals. All of a sudden, Blue Island was in the mix.

May won the high hurdles. In the 880 relay, he was matched against Phillips' John Lattimore, who went on to win the 220 in 1956.

"We were down," May recalled. "I knew I had to really go. I gave Rechord a half-step lead. (Phillips') Billy Martin took the lead back, then Bobby took it back on the last turn. Afterward, I had to sit down. I was shot. It was the only time I didn't think I could come back from the 880 relay to run the low hurdles. I had less than 10 minutes to rest."

Martin, who won the lows in a then-state record time of 18.9 seconds in 1956, had been timed in 19.2 in Friday's prelims. But he had anchored Phillips' 880 relay. How much did he have left?

"When the gun went off, I am racing Martin, not worrying about anyone else," May said. "But I don't see Martin. I see (New Trier's) Dick Fisk. He is stealing the race. He is the man to beat, not Martin (who finished last).
I found something somewhere and was able to beat him. It was the only time I doubted I could do it."

Afterward, someone informed May that Blue Island had clinched the team championship.

"The impact didn't hit me until the next day, what we had done, that it was a big deal, until I read it in the newspaper," May said. "We didn't have a big celebration on the track, just a few pictures. We didn't know it was only the second state title our school had ever won (and still is). Then it dawned on me that we had done something pretty incredible."

Rechord put it all in perspective. "I remember Willie Mays was starring in baseball in those days and we had Willie May. It was really a good feeling to be on top of the world," he said.

Why Ben Roethlisberger's perspective on young QBs (like Mitchell Trubisky) is worth keeping in mind

Why Ben Roethlisberger's perspective on young QBs (like Mitchell Trubisky) is worth keeping in mind

If Mitchell Trubisky takes over as the Bears’ starting quarterback this year and has some success, keep Ben Roethlisberger’s perspective in mind: It’ll take a couple of years before he’s solidly established in the NFL. 

Roethlisberger said even after his rookie year — in which he won all 13 regular season games he started — he still was facing defensive looks he hadn’t seen before in Year 2 and 3 as a pro. So saying someone is and will be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL after a productive first season is, for Roethlisberger, too early. 

“I think it takes a couple years,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s why I’m always slow to send too much praise or anoint the next great quarterback after Year 1. I think people in the media and the 'professionals' in some of these big sports networks are so quick to anoint the next great one or say that they’re going to be great; this, that and the other. Let’s wait and see what happens after two to three years; after defenses understand what you’re bringing; you’re not a surprise anymore. 

“I think it takes a few years until you can really get that title of understanding being great or even good, because you see so many looks. In Year 2 and 3, you’re still seeing looks and can act like a rookie.”

The flip side to this would be not panicking if Trubisky struggles when he eventually becomes the Bears’ starting quarterback. For all the success he had during preseason play, most of it came against backup and third string defenses that hadn’t done much gameplanning for him. Defensive coordinators inevitably will scheme to make things more difficult for a rookie quarterback with normal week of planning, and it may take Trubisky a little while to adjust to seeing things he hasn't before. 

“They’re not going to line up in a 4-3 or a 3-4 base defense, they’re going to throw different looks at you, different blitzes to try and confuse you,” Roethlisberger said. “The confusion between the ears part is really one of the biggest keys to it.”

The “it” Roethlisberger referred to there is success as a rookie. The former 11th overall pick was lucky enough to begin his NFL career with a strong ground game headlined by Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis, a balanced receiving corps featuring Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randel El and a defense that led the NFL in points allowed (15.7/game). Trubisky, as the Bears’ roster currently stands, won’t be afforded that same level of support. 

Roethlisberger, though, had a chance to meet and work out with Trubisky before the draft (the two quarterbacks share the same agent) and, for what it's worth, came away impressed with 

“I thought he was a tremendous athlete,” Roethlisberger said. “I thought he could throw the ball. I thought when he got out of the pocket and made throws on the run, his improvising. I got to watch some of his college tape. Just really impressed with the athleticism. The ease of throwing the ball; it just looked easy to him when he was on the run, when it wasn’t supposed to be super easy. So I thought that those were the most impressive things that I got to see; obviously not sitting in a meeting room and knowing his smarts or things like that, but just the athleticism.”
 

Cubs vs. Rays: Joe Maddon imagines what Chris Archer could do in a big market

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USA TODAY

Cubs vs. Rays: Joe Maddon imagines what Chris Archer could do in a big market

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Picture Chris Archer performing with Wrigley Field as the backdrop – the one Joe Maddon compared to a computer-generated scene from “Gladiator” – instead of a dumpy building off Interstate 275.      

Archer could see, feel and hear the Cubs fans who took over Tropicana Field on Tuesday night, a crowd of 25,046 saluting Maddon and watching the defending World Series champs play a sharp all-around game in a 2-1 win over a Tampa Bay Rays team that has a less than 1 percent chance of making the playoffs now.  

“It’s weird,” Archer said after the tough-luck loss, comparing the scene to last week’s games relocated to New York in the wake of Hurricane Irma. “I didn’t know we had that many people from Chicago, Illinois, Midwest area, in Tampa, but I guess we do. It was just weird for their players to come out and get announced and get so much love. It was strange.

“It felt like we were in Citi Field playing the Yankees, honestly. I’m not being critical. It was just crazy how much royal blue there was out there. When Willson Contreras went out there to warm up the pitcher, he had a standing O.

“I’ve been here for however long – and seen some really good players come – and I’ve never seen anybody get as much love (as they did when) they ran out of the dugout to warm up.

“It was just kind of crazy.”  

Archer pitched in the Before Theo farm system, at a time when the Cubs were scrambling to try to pry their window to contend back open after winning back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008. Maddon became the beneficiary when the Cubs packaged Archer – who had 13 Double-A starts on his resume at that point – in the blockbuster Matt Garza trade in January 2011.

Archer, who worked last year’s World Series as an ESPN analyst, has pitched in only two playoff games, making two relief appearances out of Maddon’s bullpen when the Boston Red Sox handled the Rays during a 2013 first-round series.   

Archer lost 19 games last season while putting up a 4.02 ERA and 200-plus innings. He earned his second All-Star selection this year and will turn 29 later this month. Wonder what the good-but-not-great numbers in 2017 – 9-11, 4.02 ERA, 32 starts, 241 strikeouts – would look like on a contender.       

“He is among the elite pitchers, there’s no question about that,” Maddon said. “I don’t watch him enough to know when he goes into these bad moments what exactly is going on. (And) I don’t even know how much certain years luck plays into it or not.

“But the thing about him in a big-city market that would intrigue me is him. He’s really bright. And he’s very socially engaged. For him to be in more of an urban kind of a setting with a greater audience, he could make quite an impact.”

Archer is locked into a team-friendly contract that will pay him roughly $14 million in 2018 and 2019 combined, plus the Rays hold bargain club options for 2020 ($9 million) and 2021 ($11 million). Meaning it would take an unbelievable offer just to get Tampa Bay’s attention.

Archer is also a face of the franchise, a two-time Roberto Clemente Award nominee who visits young men and women in the Pinellas County Juvenile Detention Center and stays involved with Major League Baseball’s RBI Program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities).

“Beyond being a pitcher who is very, very good, I would be curious if he was in a larger situation,” said Maddon, who has an offseason home and a restaurant in Tampa and sat with Archer during a Buccaneers game last season. “Just because socially, in a community, he’s already done it here. But you put him in a large city with more of an urban situation – he could really be impactful in that city. He’s really engaging when he speaks. He’s very bright. He’s really well-thought-out.”

Archer has come a long way from the Mark DeRosa salary-dump trade with the Cleveland Indians on New Year’s Eve 2008. Stan Zielinski, the beloved scout who died in January, lobbied then-general manager Jim Hendry, insisting the Cubs shouldn’t do the deal without Archer, a Class-A pitcher who went 4-8 with a 4.29 ERA that season.

While closing the Garza deal, the Rays actually pushed for another pitching prospect, but the Cubs wanted to hold onto Trey McNutt. Other players bundled in that trade became useful major-league pieces (Brandon Guyer, Robinson Chirinos, Sam Fuld), but the headliner was supposed to be Hak-Ju Lee, a South Korean shortstop already blocked by Starlin Castro who never made it to the big leagues.    

“There was a lot of good players that came the Rays’ way at that time,” Maddon said. “I didn’t know what to expect (from Archer). I saw him in camp. Great arm. Didn’t really have a good feel for command at that time.

“But when you talked to the kid, you couldn’t help but really like him a lot. He and I connected on more of an intellectual level regarding books and stuff, because he’s really well-read. He’s a lot smarter than I’ll ever be. I’ve always enjoyed my conversations with him. And then all of a sudden, he started finding the plate. And that slider’s electric.”

Maddon has already seen what the Cubs brand and Chicago platform can do for his baseball legacy, bank account and off-the-field interests.

Do you want Archer back?

“I didn’t say that,” Maddon said. “That’s something I cannot (say).”