Preps Talk

Crane old-timers recall the good times

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Crane old-timers recall the good times

Eugene Ford, Tim Robinson, Carl Merritt, and James Jackson remember the way it was in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s when Richard T. Crane Technical Preparatory High School was a showplace on the West Side. They are saddened by recent reports that the 121-year-old school is being "phased out" by the Chicago Board of Education.

"Crane was another world back then," said Ford, a 1965 graduate who was the Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year in basketball. "America was coming into its own with issues that had to be dealt with. We rode the back of the civil rights movement. Doors opened up. We pursued opportunities."

"To hear that Crane is closing is sad. They talk about (former Chicago Bears owner and coach) George Halas being the most famous alumnus of the school. But there were a million George Halases at Crane. Basketball was king. There were many good teams and players who brought the student body together, that created great school spirit and pride."

Last Wednesday, Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard announced that Crane and Dyett would be slowly phased out of existence and four struggling elementary schools would be closed by summer. Crane will stop enrolling freshmen and the dwindling student body will begin sharing space with Talent Development Charter School.

Crane built its reputation on basketball and its West Side rivalry with Marshall. Ford led Crane to the 1964 city championship. Robinson led Crane to the 1957 Public League title. Jackson was an All-State selection in 1974. For 40 years, Merritt has organized the CraneMarshall reunion that annually attracts 300 to 500 alumni.

The school has produced many outstanding basketball players, some of whom went on to compete in the NBA. The list also includes Tony Allen, Cory Blackwell, Dan Davis, Ken Colliers Norman, Bob Dillard, Anthony Manuel, Joe Daughrity, Jerome Freeman, Nate Williams, Andre Wakefield, Joe Reiff and Sherron Collins.

It is argued in some circles that too much basketball and not enough academics, the same formula that ended King's basketball dynasty, was the reason behind Crane's demise. That and too much violence and the razing of the Henry Horner and Rockwell Gardens housing projects that effectively turned the community from a neighborhood to transient.

"We had a West Side neighborhood then," Ford recalled. "Now the kids are bused in. They are transients. The neighborhood has broken down. The family was more intact then, more structured. You don't have that today."

But, Ford insists, there is always politics. "So many school superintendents come to Chicago. All of them come with new ideas of how to fix the problem of the public schools. But we've never had one superintendent who was a product of city schools, someone who knows what is going on from within the system," he said.

Robinson, a minister, is reminded of the old gym with the running trackbalcony surrounding the playing floor. He recently spoke to players on the 2011-12 squad in the new gym. It is hard for him to believe that his alma mater is being phased out.

"If they are going to phase out the school, I'd be disappointed," he said. "Back then, there was a high spirit of pride in the school. I can't recall any major incidents. The student body was involved. There were a lot of activities, a lot of expectations because of the basketball team.

"Everyone made sure there was an environment where everybody looked forward to going to school. We have competition with Marshall but it was clean. CraneMarshall was the biggest rivalry in the city at that time. The students took great pride in it."

Jackson, who has lived in Australia for the last 30 years, attended Crane because all of his brothers and sisters and most of the kids in his neighborhood went there. Crane also had a tradition for producing good basketball teams and players.

"It was a tough school in a tough area and the thing I remember most even before I went to the school is I always heard stories from my brothers about the basketball teams," Jackson said. "It had a reputation as one of the best schools in the area for basketball."

Jackson attended Medill Primary and was recruited to Crane by coach Dan Davis, a Crane graduate who had played with Ford on the 1964 city championship team.

"To this day, I am in contact with Dan," Jackson said. "On my visit to Chicago last year, he did some personal training with my son. He took us to Crane to watch some games. I was proud to show my son my heritage of high school basketball."

"I can't imagine basketball without Crane on the West Side of Chicago. Crane developed me into the player I was, it kept me off the streets and out of trouble and gave me direction in life. I will certainly be sad to see the school gone, all those memories."

Merritt, a graduate of 1958, recalled that the school was more than basketball. "We had great teachers at the time. If you wanted to learn, you would learn, from music to shops. We also had a great band. Of course, we always had good basketball, great players," he said.

Merritt organized the first CraneMarshall reunion in 1974. He arranged for top-notch singing groups, including the Drifters and the Spaniels. One of the first groups was Merrit's own, the Tomcats, which featured six Crane and Marshall graduates. The event got bigger and bigger. Sit-down dinners attracted crowds from 300 to 400, as many as 500, with alumni coming from New York and California.

He recalls when he attended Crane, there was only one policeman, a man named Peterson, who patrolled the hallways.

Despite reports of repeated violence and declining attendance, Merritt doesn't believe Crane will be phased out as was Austin, another West Side school with a great tradition in football.

"Someone suggested that we should put together a group to save Crane," he said. "But I think we should wait to see what (the board) has planned. Maybe Crane will be better. Nobody wants to send kids there now because of violence. I still live in the same house that I lived in when I went to Crane. I think the neighborhood is getting better. More people are moving in."

Interestingly, George Wilson almost ended up at Crane. He graduated from summer school at Crane, then enrolled at Marshall where he became a three-time All-State basketball player and the leader of Marshall's 1958 and 1960 state championship teams. He also has been involved in the CraneMarshall reunion for 40 years.

"My feelings would be the same if I heard Marshall was closing," Wilson said. "MarshallCrane was the big game on the West Side. It meant the world to me. When I talk about my days at Marshall, I always will mention Crane. I have fond memories of that rivalry. We didn't hate each other. We were very competitive with each other. We were always friends."

Recruiting news and notes: Lincoln-Way East's AJ Henning piling up major offers

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HUDL

Recruiting news and notes: Lincoln-Way East's AJ Henning piling up major offers

Lincoln-Way East sophomore athlete recruit AJ Henning (5-foot-10, 170 pounds) continues to pile up the major Power 5 scholarship offers this winter including his latest from Stanford on Wednesday.

"Stanford offered me a scholarship today (Wednesday)," Henning said. "I have thirteen scholarship offers so far and it's pretty amazing to have opportunities from such great schools and football programs."

Henning, who was a key performer in leading the Griffins to the 2017 Class 8A state championship run has been taking all of the recruiting attention and offers in stride.

"My family and I talk about recruiting a little bit but it's not really that pressing for me," he said. "I still have two years left of high school so I'm really not in any rush."

Henning, who plans to visit Notre Dame on March 3 is now holding early scholarship offers from Central Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Miami of Ohio, Michigan State, Minnesota, Missouri, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Penn State, Stanford, Syracuse and Western Michigan.

Oswego East junior defensive back recruit Justin Clark (6-foot, 180 pounds) has also seen a nice spike in his overall recruiting stock this winter. Clark has been able to add six scholarship offers along with recruiting attention from several Big Ten programs.

"I have offers now from NIU, Bowling Green, Miami of Ohio, Iowa State, Toledo and Ohio University," according to Clark. "I've also been staying in touch with Minnesota, Northwestern, Iowa and Purdue. Northwestern is waiting on my test score and they seem pretty interested. Iowa, Purdue and Minnesota all want me to come out and visit them on campus and the same goes for all the schools who have offered me."

Clark, who played quarterback, running back, wide receiver, safety, cornerback as well as return kicks and punts and also punted for Oswego East being recruiting to play at what position in college so far?

"So far the majority of schools are recruiting me to play safety," Clark said. "I'm very open when it comes to position and I also love to return kicks and punts. I just like to be as versatile of a player as I can for my team."

Batavia junior linebacker Michael Jansey Jr. (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) has continued to remain on several college recruiting radar screens this winter and Jansey Jr. has also seen his offers list grow.

"It seems like my recruiting is all starting to come together really well," Jansey Jr. said. "My latest offers from from Miami of Ohio, Kent State, Eastern Kentucky, Cornell and Wyoming."

Jansey Jr, has also remained in steady contact with several Big Ten schools this winter.

"I'm also in touch with Northwestern, Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska," he said. "Also some of the SEC schools are starting to follow me on Twitter. It's just pretty exciting and my recruiting is really starting to all coming together."

Jansey Jr. has early scholarship offers now from Central Michigan, Ball State, Toledo, Illinois State, Iowa State, Western Michigan, Princeton, Cornell, Kent State, Miami of Ohio, Wyoming, Illinois State and Eastern Kentucky.

One of the better stories in the Class of 2019 in Chicagoland has to be Jacobs junior offensive tackle Joacheim Price (6-foot-8, 310 pounds). Price, who has been a mainstay on the Golden Eagles basketball team since his freshman year had never played football until last June. Price is now holding early offers from the likes of Illinois, West Virginia, Iowa State and Northern Illinois this winter. 

"The first time in summer football workouts I didn't know how to get into a stance," Price said. "I had to stay over after every practice that summer just to work on getting into a stance. I also had to learn all of the plays and also learn technique. I just hung in there and kept working and started to gain more and more confidence."

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 grade: B-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Kyle Fuller (free agent), Prince Amukamara (free agent), Marcus Cooper (contract), Sherrick McManis (free agent), Bryce Callahan (restricted free agent), Quintin Demps (contract)

Possible free agent targets: Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Bashaud Breeland, E.J. Gaines, Rashaad Melvin, Robert McClain, Darrelle Revis

There’s a wide spectrum of scenarios for the Bears at cornerback, ranging from keeping the status quo to blowing the whole thing up, and everything in between. Safety is far more stable, with Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson proving to be a reliable pairing, so that’s set for 2018.

Let’s start with one end of that cornerback spectrum: The Bears keep the top of this unit intact. That means, No. 1, retaining Kyle Fuller via the franchise tag and/or a long-term contract. No. 2, it means bringing back Prince Amukamara, who didn’t record an interception and committed a few too many penalties, but otherwise was a fine enough cover corner. No. 3, it means keeping restricted free agent Bryce Callahan as the team’s No. 1 slot corner.

On paper, this doesn’t seem like an altogether bad option. The Bears weren’t spectacular at cornerback in 2017, but the position was a little better than average, which isn’t the worst place to be for a single unit. Couple with solid play from the safeties and the Bears’ defensive backs were overall a decent enough group. Outside of Marcus Cooper -- who is a candidate to be cut for cap savings -- the Bears may not need to make wholesale changes to this group.

That, though, is a rosier look at this unit. The Bears can certainly improve the personnel in it with a healthy amount of cap space and a strong crop of free agent cornerbacks about to hit the market. Keeping Fuller and then signing a top-tier player like Trumaine Johnson or Malcolm Butler would upgrade this group, as would bringing back Fuller and Amukamara but then using a high draft pick on a player like Ohio State’s Denzel Ward.

Unless the Bears sign two big-time cornerbacks -- i.e. Fuller and Johnson, or even a guy like Brashaud Breeland or E.J. Gaines -- it would seem reasonable for them to use a first or second-round pick on a cornerback in an effort to find a longer-term solution at the position. That doesn’t mean the Bears would absolutely have to go that route, especially with other needs at wide receiver, guard and outside linebacker.

But here’s another thought: It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Bears are able to sign a combination of two top cornerbacks in free agency. With plenty of cap space top-end free agents lacking at wide receiver and outside linebacker/edge rusher, could Pace allocate a good chunk of that money to, say, tagging Fuller and making runs at Johnson, Butler and/or Breeland? 2018 looks to be a good year to be aggressive in the free agent cornerback market, and that could play into the Bears’ strategy well.

Before we finish, we should carve out some space for Amos and Jackson. Pro Football Focus isn’t the only outlet that’s given Amos high marks -- Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 ranked him as the No. 1 free safety in the league, too. Jackson came in at No. 19 in B/R’s strong safety rankings, which is pretty solid for a fourth-round rookie.

But the larger point here isn’t exactly where Amos and Jackson are in outside evaluations -- it’s that, tangibly, the pair played well off each other on a consistent basis last year. Seeing as Amos didn’t enter the Bears’ starting lineup until Week 4 -- after Quintin Demps suffered a season-ending broken forearm against Pittsburgh -- how quickly and successfully he and Jackson meshed was one of the more impressive developments for the Bears’ 2017 defense. Amos needs to make more plays on the ball and Jackson has some things to clean up, but the Bears enter the 2018 league year not needing to address their safety position. That’s a good place to be for a team with other significant needs.