Bears

Remembering Willie May

600388.png

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.

Jordan Howard's newfound receiving skill expands critical realm of the possible for Bears' offense

0722_jordan_howard.jpg
USA TODAY

Jordan Howard's newfound receiving skill expands critical realm of the possible for Bears' offense

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — The Bears desperately need more from Jordan Howard, which may sound greedy given that he has been one of the only offensive sparks of the last two seasons. And they may be getting it.

Through the early practices in Bears Camp ’18, the nascent offense of coach Matt Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich has been ... interesting. The intensity and conditions can be posited as factors, but the fact remains that the defense has intercepted a half-dozen passes and the pass rush has had Mitch Trubisky and the other quarterbacks frequently scrambling after coverage locked down their intended receivers.

Amid all that, something decidedly positive and mildly surprising was unfolding.

Rush-and-cover combos force check-downs to shorter routes, in particular running backs. If this were the Kansas City Chiefs offense under Nagy last year, that would have been Kareem Hunt, who caught 84 percent of the 63 passes on which he was targeted. If this were the Bears from 2008 through 2015, that would have been Matt Forte, who never caught fewer than 44 passes in any of his eight Chicago seasons.

But those were thens, this is now, and the featured back in the Chicago offense is Howard. That qualifies as a question for the developing Bears offense, an iteration of the West Coast system that is predicated on positive plays and ball control using the pass.

The reason is that Howard has developed two competing personas through his first two NFL seasons. One was that of a workhorse running back, the first in Bears franchise history to top 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons. A model of consistency at 4.6 yards per carry.

The “other” Jordan Howard was the model of inconsistency — a running back among the worst pass-catchers at his position, low-lighted by the drop of a potential game-winning touchdown pass against the Atlanta Falcons last opening day. Howard dropped six of his 29 targets last season, according to Pro Football Focus. The year before he was determined to have dropped seven of his 50 targets.

An emerging 'new' Howard

But maybe that latter was then and this training camp is now.

The defensive pressure has, by chance or by choice, sent Trubisky passes toward Howard. The third-year tailback has responded with both efficient pass-catching and occasionally light acrobatic work, turning off-target throws into positive plays.

The results qualify as a significant positive from early camp. Howard is getting a clean-slate start from Nagy and running backs coach Charles London, and the hope is for a three-down back in the Hunt/Forte mold, which Howard can only be if he is an effective third-down option. His head coach thinks he is.

“Obviously, there’s this façade out there, there’s this notion that (Howard) is just a first- and second-down back, and I don’t believe that,” Nagy said. “Jordan can play all three downs. We’re going to do that. We’re going to use him. And we’re going to use other guys on first and second down when we need to.

“For us, it’s important for Jordan to know and for everybody on our offense to know that he’s a big part of this. This kid’s had a very successful career so far. We’re crazy as coaches and as offensive coaches if we don’t understand it and if we don’t use that to our advantage.”

Wanting Howard to be a three-down force and achieving that are two different things. For his part, Howard has worked to effect what can become a tidal shift for the offense.

“Definitely it’s important to me, just building my confidence more and more with catching the ball and working my body,” Howard said. “It’s definitely important to me. ... I definitely have improved my hand placement. I used to have my hands all over the place, but now coach London is working with me on my hand placement and looking the ball in.”

Possible impact on Howard

The impact of a multi-dimensional Howard cannot be overstated, and it could be overlooked in the buzz of all the other “weapons” the Bears brought in this offseason. It shouldn’t be.

Neither should the effect his enhanced skillset can have for Howard himself.

When the Bears’ offense broke out under Marc Trestman in 2013, finishing second in scoring, Forte caught 74 passes while posting his career-high 1,335 rushing yards on an average of 4.6 yards per carry.

Hunt as a rookie last season led the NFL with 1,327 rushing yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry while being the Chiefs’ third-leading receiver in both catches and targets. Howard was the only of the top eight leading rushers in 2017 with fewer than Leonard Fournette’s 36.

Tarik Cohen delivered 53 receptions. But Cohen is not a three-down back with the capability of the 200-plus carries that 17 of the top 19 running backs logged last year.

A critical element projects to be Howard’s conditioning and ability to take on a larger and more diverse workload. That limited him in his rookie season, when his usage in fourth quarters dropped at times because he simply wasn’t in requisite shape. The Bears hope that issue and the drops are behind Howard.

“He’s a patient running back,” Nagy said. “I think he as good vision so he’s patient, has good vision, and when you combine that with the power that he has, he finds ways to get yards. The nice thing for us is that we can move him around and do different things.”

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

bryant_cubs-cards_podcast_slide.jpg
USA TODAY

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

Tony Andracki is joined by Phil Barnes, the senior editor of Vine Line, to break down the Cubs-Cardinals 5-game series at Wrigley Field that kicked off the second half of the 2018 MLB season.

The main takeaways from the weekend included an up-close look at a Cubs starting rotation is still struggling to find their footing almost 2/3 of the way through the season. 

The Cubs lineup and bullpen continue to be the saving grace of the team with the NL's best record and run differential, but there are serious question marks moving forward on the depth of the relievers as well as waiting for Kris Bryant to return to MVP form.

Check out the entire podcast here: