For two years Charles Shipp had to cross gang territory and endure the taunts and beatings of thugs and bullies to get to school. But no gangbanger has endangered his determined pursuit of an education as much as the faceless association of bureaucrats who control high school sports in Illinois.

Earlier this year the Illinois High School Association ruled that Shipp, now an 18-year-old senior at Chicago Vocational High School, wasn’t eligible to play sports because he should have graduated last year. That ruling kept Shipp off the football team, which has probably denied him the chance to get a football scholarship.

“The story of what happened to Charles illustrates what’s wrong with the system,” says Betty Despenza Green, CVS’s principal. “We should be encouraging students to stay in school and be productive citizens, not standing as obstacles in their path. Sometimes I wonder if the system just wants kids to fail.”

Shipp’s troubles began in the winter of 1992, when he was a scrawny 15-year-old sophomore living with his grandmother in the Robert Taylor Homes. “I wasn’t big back then,” he says. “I was a little kid, and I guess the gangs thought I was an easy target. Everywhere I went they were harassing me.”

The gang members knew Shipp’s route between home and school and waited for him each day at the bus stop. “They asked me, did I want to ‘go home to the gang’? I said no. I didn’t want to join a gang. It can’t lead you anywhere but to drugs or prison.

“They got violent. Once I was on the bus and about seven of them got on. They didn’t say nothing to me–they just started hitting me. I tried to fight them off. But they beat me pretty good. Another time I got jumped by 20 of them. They pounded me good. My eyes got swollen. The police chased them away.”

Shipp filed a report with the police, but it did little good. He was just one of many kids facing gang violence, and the police couldn’t protect them all. He might have told the principal or school counselor, but he was shy and fearful. His family was in upheaval, and his grandmother was seriously ill. He had no one to turn to. So he quietly stopped coming to school.

“I wasn’t hiding. I was trying to get away. My whole strategy was to leave school before the gangs could get me. While I was in class my mind wasn’t on schoolwork. It was on what route I’d take to get away from them. I decided to stay away from school for a while. I figured if I stayed away the gang pressures would calm down. I didn’t do much–just stayed at home and watched television and kept my grandmother company.”

In the fall of 1992 Shipp returned for what should have been the start of his junior year, though in terms of the credits he’d earned he was still a sophomore. “I grew taller and stronger, and I felt like if someone was gonna mess with me I could take care of myself.”

He’d grown to six feet and was one of the more coordinated students in school. “I saw him in a gym class, and you could just see he was an athlete,” says Mike Cox, a gym teacher at CVS. “My idea was to get him out for a team so he could develop those skills.”

It turned out that Shipp had played baseball and basketball in several youth leagues. “I had him come out for basketball even though he didn’t have much training,” says Dick Cook, the CVS basketball coach. “He had a good attitude, and he tried hard. I had to wonder how good he could have been if he hadn’t missed those first two years.”

His best sport was baseball. Two of his uncles, Mack Payne and Stanley Kyles, had minor-league careers. “I could see right away he was a natural,” says Tom Haas, coach of the CVS baseball team. “He was raw, and he had no discipline at the plate. But he’s one of the most talented outfielders I’ve ever seen.”

Shipp pitched and played center field. “He hit .438 and threw three no-hitters, and he didn’t even get at his true talent,” says Haas. “That shows you how much potential he has.”

Suddenly the kid who was stumbling through high school had a path to follow, and scouts for college and professional baseball teams began to show interest. He buckled down and studied, and his grades went up. “We were looking at one of these miracle rags-to-riches stories,” says Principal Green.

At the start of this school year Shipp was six foot two, and the football coach, Chuck Chambers, wanted him to go out for the team. “It was evident he was good,” says Chambers. “He’s fast, he’s got great hands and instincts. I thought he could be one of the best receivers in the state.”

There was only one problem: the class with which he entered high school had graduated in June 1994. Under IHSA rules that meant he was no longer eligible to play high school athletics. “I suppose we could have tried to sneak him through,” says Haas. “The IHSA would never have known about Charles’s eligibility if we hadn’t told them. But we decided to play by the rules.”

In September Haas wrote a letter to the IHSA requesting an extension of Shipp’s eligibility. The IHSA turned him down. CVS appealed and had a hearing in Bloomington before the IHSA board. “We told them all about the gang intimidations and how he was living with his grandmother in Robert Taylor,” says Haas. “We made it clear that he had done nothing wrong.” But again the IHSA denied the CVS request.

The IHSA is an independent organization of public, private, and parochial schools; its word is law when it comes to high school sports. Shipp’s only alternative was to sue the IHSA, challenging its ruling in circuit court. But he had neither the money nor the inclination. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, man, my life is just going down the drain.’ I was going to finish high school, but what college would take a chance on me with only one year of baseball and basketball?”

Meanwhile the football season was heading toward the playoffs. “I came to every practice and did what I could to help my teammates. I wanted to play so bad.”

On October 25 Green sat down with David Fry, the IHSA executive director, and made one last appeal. “I gave him the whole story,” says Green. “I showed him the police reports Charles had filled out when the gangs were harassing him. I made it clear that this wasn’t a case where we were trying to get more years of eligibility for him. It wasn’t like he had played four years and we were trying to get five. Fry led me to believe he was a caring man. He led me to believe that Charles would play.”

Two days later the IHSA sent Green its final position on the matter: Shipp would be eligible to play after November 15. “We were elated that he could play basketball and baseball, but we were wondering, What about football?” says Green. “We had a playoff game on November 4. It didn’t make any sense. If you’re going to let him play, why make him wait? If you’re finally reaching a kid and saving his life, you shouldn’t take it back.”

Fry did not return my phone calls, and Jim Flynn, one of Fry’s assistants, said he didn’t know the details of the case. So one can only speculate about why the IHSA made Shipp wait. One theory is that it wanted to discourage other schools from recruiting older dropouts to play for their teams. “But that’s not what happened here,” says Green. “From my perspective this had nothing to do with winning a football game. This was all about saving a student who had left school for reasons beyond his control. You have to wonder how the IHSA would have acted if Charles was a student from the suburbs who took a year off to take care of an ailing parent.”

CVS had to go without Shipp in its November 4 playoff game against Waubonsie Valley, a high school in the western suburbs that has more coaches, better equipment, and a longer training season. Nevertheless the game came down to one fourth-down goal-line stand late in the fourth quarter, with CVS leading 20-14. Waubonsie picked up the first down on a controversial offside ruling against CVS and went on to score the go-ahead touchdown. A last-minute CVS drive failed.

Shipp, the team’s best receiver during practice, had to watch from the sidelines. When the final gun sounded he fell to the ground and cried.

“The system let him down,” says Chambers. “We’re supposed to get kids to reach their potential, but as far as football we’ll never know now what Charles could do.”

But Shipp has rebounded since that game. He helped his basketball team win the Taft High School Thanksgiving Tournament and plans to play baseball in the spring. It’s unlikely he could win a basketball scholarship, but he hopes either to win a baseball scholarship or to get drafted. “I got to thank my coaches and Mrs. Green,” he says. “If it wasn’t for them, God knows where I’d be.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.