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It's a long way from the South Side of Chicago to the Ivy League. But Tyrell Hennings has successfully traversed the route, which has taken him from a second-rate high school in a crumbling neighborhood to one of the most prestigious universities in America. Once a star for a little-regarded South Shore High, Hennings now runs out of the fullback slot in Yale's powerful wishbone offense.
Tyrell has scored six touchdowns for the Ivy League's leading offense, and his powerful blasts between the tackles have freed speedsters Dick Jauron and Rudy Green for outside rambles. Although only a sophomore, he stepped unhindered into the starting lineup, and much of the credit for the Eli's favored position in today's Game must be given to him.
I first met Tyrell when we went out for freshman football together in high school. Although he is a powerfully built 205-pounder today, he weighed in at a slim 130 back then. He had always wanted to play football. When growing up on the southwest side of the city, he had heard that South Shore High needed good ball players and had a good academic program as well. So he told his mother he wanted to go to South Shore, and she moved the family several miles into our school district.
At one time in the early sixties, South Shore indeed had a good academic reputation, but the surrounding neighborhood was racially changing and the school's caliber deteriorated as the streets were increasingly torn by violence. The institutional racism of the Chicago Board of Education meant less funding and fewer experienced teachers for a school that was becoming all-black, and South Shore rapidly became just another inner-city school.
But this was all in our future when we went out for freshman ball. Tyrell wanted to run with the ball, but since--like many freshmen--he didn't get out of school until 4:30 p.m., the freshman coach made him a second string quarterback. Tyrell would dress in the rag-tag equipment money-pinched city schools give to their football players, and with strips of tape dangling from his torn jersey and practice pants, scramble all over the field looking for non-existent receivers after the first string had run through its routine.
Tyrell was disappointed by his freshman performance, but he was determined to go out for the varsity in the spring anyway. This time things were markedly different. Varsity Coach Ralph Hegener, our father-figure for the next three years, took a liking to Tyrell, and he swiftly became a starter. For at least the next six years he played organized football, he would never sit on the bench again.
During the next three years, Tyrell became a star and somewhat of a local legend. He was named All-Area three times and captained the South Shore Tars his senior year. Once against Kennedy High School, Tyrell provided our entire offense. In a game to decide the divisional championship, he rambled on a muddy field off-tackle for touchdowns of 35 and 85 yards as we edged Kennedy, 12-6. He was named the Chicago area's back-of-the-week for this performance.
We played in the same league that produced All-Pro Dick Butkus, and we played rough and hard. Fundamentals were our watchword; no fancy suburban passing, no exotic option plays, just a hard-nosed ass-kicking running game between the tackles. We played ghetto schools and working-class white schools where the kids still grassed their hair. Our furthers were painters and policemen, and most of us thought of college merely as four more years of football. "I'm lower middle-class just like you are," Coach Hegener would scream at us. "I could make more money coaching in the suburbs, but I stay with my people." And even though our team was 95 per cent black by senior year and Hegener was white, he was right. We were his kind of people.
Football was always pushed to us as a way to fulfill the American Dream. If you hit hard and came to practice every day, you could get a college scholarship and become a success. Every year, on gridirons in industrial neighborhoods in the north and southern hamlets, high school kids turn out for freshman football with the hopes of capturing a piece of that dream. Tyrell was no different in this respect than any of us--he just worked harder to translate the Dream into reality. He never thought he would fail.
By following a rigorous regimen of weightlifting, jogging and eating health foods, Tyrell reached his present weight. Since he was blessed with good speed, the extra weight and strength made him college material. By the end of junior year, he began looking around for schools that interested him.
Tyrell got interested in Yale after he read about the great Eli running back, Calvin Hill, and decided he would like to go there. But although enemy tacklers could not catch up to him on the field, this time he was brought down by our school's deteriorating academic program. Although his grades were high, he faltered in his college boards. He had done more than had been asked of him in a neighborhood where to succeed merely meant not joining the powerful Blackstone Rangers, but he had difficulty performing in something for which he had never been prepared.
But then a wealthy Yale alumnus from the suburbs entered the scene. Impressed by Tyrell's character and football ability. Bob Anderson arranged for him to enter the Puddle School in New Jersey. After a year at Puddle. Tyrell mind his SAT's 300 points and Yale grabbed him. In the process, he had made All-State New Jersey and scored eight touchdowns.
I went to see him play in one game, staged in East Hartford, Conn., and he rolled over the enemy prep school on offense while stifling their offense from his outside linebacker position. (Tyrell always played both ways. We thought in fact that he would achieve his major college success playing D.)
Beginning back in our senior year, Tyrell started to dub himself "The Gale from Yale," after his high school hero, Gale Sayers. In those days it seemed an unlikely dream, but this year it became a reality. The American Dream did not work out for the rest of our friends. Angelo Nutall, a 9.6 hundred man, is in the Marine Corps. Don Thompson, a tough Irish kid who played tackle, signed up for a four-year hitch in the Navy. Russell (Sweet Sing) Singleton went to Vietnam. The others are married and working in the steel mills. The more successful are in the building trades unions.
But all that will be pushed to the back of my mind today. One of my oldest friends will be in the Stadium playing football. And although I am generally loyal to Mother Harvard, today I'll be cheering for Yale.
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