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Mundelein Friday 10.19.12. Lake Forest quarterback Andrew Clifford (10) looks for a receiver during their game against Mundelein on Friday, Oct. 19, 2012, in Mundelein. | Buzz Orr~Sun-Times Media
The Metra commuter train runs through Lake Forest, connecting the suburb and its residents to downtown Chicago. Lawyers, managers and captains of industry ride into the big city every morning to do their work.
The train is a vital conduit for the affluent town, but it is something else, too. For three Lake Forest High School students last winter and spring, it was a means of death.
In three separate incidents, each of the students stood in front of one of those massive steel locomotives and asked for horrid relief from something — at least at that moment — more horrid within.
No one knows exactly what ailed those students. They weren’t bullied. They weren’t in gangs. They weren’t dangerous to others. They had friends. But there were, indeed, issues. They were adolescents.
The suicides made national news. Was it an epidemic? Was it the price of affluence? How far would this go?
And for the Lake Forest sports teams and other kids in extracurricular activities, how would this affect their focus, desire and fragile teenage psyches?
For the football team, the tragedies only made players come together, made them realize they had to support each other or they had nothing. They already had overcome the death of popular 16-year-old student Ellie Burns, who was killed by a falling tree while on a camping trip in July 2011 in Wyoming. That season, players wore ‘‘E.B.’’ on their helmets.
This year, the players worked hard during the summer, blocking out the darkness of the lost students. They even made T-shirts that read ‘‘RELENTLESS 142.’’ That was for the 142 hours they spent lifting weights, running and drilling with each other before fall practice. But the suicides were always in the background.
‘‘It created a very deep emotional, very frightening sense of loss and fear for the administrators, the teachers and the students,’’ school-board president Sharon Golan says. ‘‘There were administrators crying in the hall. We had psychologists come in and speak. We all kept asking, ‘What is causing this?’?’’
To add to the uncertainty and angst, the teachers went on strike not long after the school year started. Suddenly, the 3-0 football team couldn’t play.
Lake Forest is known for excelling in ‘‘country club’’ sports, not down-and-dirty football. Even with quarterback Tommy Rees (now at Notre Dame), the Scouts couldn’t make the IHSA playoffs three years ago.
‘‘And everybody was saying this would be a rebuilding year,’’ says junior free safety Geno Quaid, adding that such talk only fired him up more.
Quaid’s two interceptions in Lake Forest’s 31-19 victory last week against favored Notre Dame in the Class 6A quarterfinals helped prove the point.
For a while, though, it seemed likely the Scouts wouldn’t have a season to talk about at all. The teachers had walked out, and the team was supposed to play Lake Zurich at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 14. At 4:30, the boys were still hopeful the strike would be settled.
No deal was reached, though, and Lake Zurich won by forfeit 2-0.
The only thing the Scouts had going for them was coach Chuck Spagnoli. He continued to coach them. A health-and-wellness teacher at the school, Spagnoli technically was crossing the picket line by doing so. He didn’t care.
‘‘I wasn’t pro-administration; I wasn’t against the teachers,’’ Spagnoli says in his office Tuesday as he breaks down film for Lake Forest’s semifinal game against Cary-Grove. ‘‘I was for the players.’’
The Scouts squeaked into the playoffs at 6-3. Now they have beaten three higher-ranked opponents, and nobody knows where it will end.
They have no superstars, but they have strong leadership from four senior captains — quarterback Andrew Clifford, running back Scott Powell, defensive lineman Tony Kutschke and cornerback Tommy Doherty. Those are the teens who told the guys to stick together, that all clichés about a team are true.
And they have kids such as Quaid, who has had three major operations on his right shoulder in the last three years but would have to be torn from football with a crowbar.
‘‘I believe our team is never out of it,’’ Quaid says. ‘‘It’s like our captains said: ‘Don’t let the strike or anything else ruin our season.’?’’
Yes, the strike ended, and the team of nobodies has gone further than any Lake Forest football team since 1978.
‘‘I think a lot of people could learn a lesson from these kids,’’ Spagnoli says. ‘‘Quit whining and start working.’’
Wide receiver Jack Troller, who knew Ellie Burns well and who lives two doors from the house where one of the kids who committed suicide lived, says: ‘‘It’s nice just to forget about being sad and depressed and to be able to take your anger out on other players. Like Coach says, it’s an organized street fight.’’
‘‘I don’t think culture or economics has anything to do with it,’’ Spagnoli says of those who love football and play it full tilt, regardless of their station in life.
And through it all, the train runs on.