The Lafollette Park auditorium erupted last Friday night with chants of “Garrett, Garrett” as one of Austin’s hometown heroes entered.
Nearly 40 youngsters sported Wildcat football jerseys, while more than 50 community members turned out to salute one of their own, Chicago Bears running back Garrett Wolfe.
Wolfe, who grew up a block from the park at 1333 N. Laramie, returned to have his old No. 25 Junior Bears middle school jersey retired. The honor is the second of its kind for Wolfe, as his Holy Cross High School jersey has also been retired.
“This is different, this is where I grew up, this my home,” Wolfe said after the ceremony. “Everything started here, on this fields, in this park, this is where I learned some of life’s most valuable lessons.”
Wolfe said he’s proud to see such a positive program, run by what he called “heroes” still standing. He said in a community like Austin, too often the positive programs fall to the wayside.
“It’s sad, but one day you will see a church on the corner and the next it’s a liquor store,” he said. “This is a program that gives these young kids something to do, and for me, it was where my dreams of becoming a pro-football player started.”
Wolfe held back tears for most of his speech, pausing to regain his composure as he stressed to the adults in the audience the importance of
remaining a constant in the lives of children.
“It is about family, whether it’s your family at home or your LaFollette Park family, these kids need positive people in their lives that make them believe anything and everything is possible,” he said.
Wolfe said he is just one of only two members of his LaFollette Park team that is able to “walk around free,” and he stressed, with tears running down his face, that the youth in Austin need a reason to “dream big.”
“Most of the kids I grew up with and played ball with are either dead or in prison,” he said. “It is programs like these, and good support systems at home and at LaFollette Park, that get and keep young men off the streets and into positive environments.”
James Bailey, the current Wildcat coach at LaFollette Park, said it’s success stories like Wolfe’s that show his athletes that with hard work and dedication, anything is possible.
“Garrett has never forgotten where he came from,” Bailey said. “He is not only a great football player, he is a great humanitarian. He is present in Austin, he is present for these kids, he is someone for our youth to look up to, and he has been a great role model and one that these kids truly need.”
Derrick Patrick, a Walter Payton Award winner and the Wildcats’ MVP last season, introduced his favorite NFL player. Patrick, 14 said, it’s Wolfe who makes him believe that someday, he will get his shot in the “show.”
“I know that not a lot of people make it out of my neighborhood,” Patrick said. “But Garrett makes me believe that I can. He’s from here, he’s from where I am from, and he shows all of us that we can make it and be anything we want if we just put our minds to it and work hard.”
Wolfe, a Heisman Trophy nominee, was a record-breaking running back at Northern Illinois University. In his senior season with the Huskies, Wolfe led the nation with 1,928 rushing yards. In 2007, Wolfe was drafted in the third round by the Bears.
Last year, Wolfe had nine tackles in the first eight games, and rushed for a career-high 120 years and one touchdown on 22 carries, before suffering a lacerated kidney that ended his season. In 2008, he led the team with 21 special-teams tackles.
When asked about the youngsters in attendance chanting his name and vying for a picture or an autograph on a football they will sleep with for the next month, Wolfe said: “The times that I feel down, or like things might not be going my way or I question my pursuit of this dream I am living, I think about all these kids, every single one of them that I would be letting down, they make it all worth it, it’s a feeling that brings me to tears.”
William Gray, who was Wolfe’s coach at LaFollette Park, said the player gives Austin kids someone to look up to, and that’s exactly what they need to make it.
“It is good to see one of our own come out of the neighborhood,” Gray said. “There is a mecca of talent in Austin, and Garrett is one of those people who never gave up.
“If someone threw it, he was going to throw it farther, if someone kicked it, he was going to kick it father, there was nothing that someone could do better than Garrett, and it was that attitude that got him to where he is at today.”
Caroline Schrenker, director of community relations for the Bears, said Wolfe has never forgotten where he came from and that’s why he is so successful.
“I’d have to say, if we had 53 Garrett Wolfe’s on the team, we would have a fantastic group of community players,” she said. “Garrett is a true humanitarian, a fantastic person on and off the field.”
Wolfe played for LaFollette Park in 1996-1997, and as a seventh-grader led the Wildcats to the Chicago Park District championship rounds at Solider Field.