GARFIELD PARK – Labeled underrated in the Illini Conference, the Al Raby Raiders are bent on proving their critics wrong this football season.

Last Saturday, the Raiders trounced Hope College Prep High School in their pre-season opener 40-0 at Stagg Stadium. The victory marked a new direction in attitude and play for the East Garfield Park team thirsting to go undefeated this school year.

Last year, the Raiders went 5-4 and finished last in the Illini Conference. The team lost in the first round of the city playoffs to Hubbard 22-0.

“We are going to show everybody that we are not underrated because nobody will be able to score on us this year. Defense is too good,” said 18-year old defensive tackle Jeremie Willaby.

“We are hungry this year,” added Brandon Bradley, 17, an outside linebacker. “We need a ring this year.”

The Raiders have devoted a lot of practice time to shore up their starting defensive line, nicknamed “Black D.”

“We are going to reduce the amount of yards that we [gave up] last year, and we are going to stop those turnovers,” Bradley said.

Jimmy Jackson, a Raiders running back, is already formulating a game plan to get his team to the playoffs. He plans to work with his sophomore counterpart to deliver a “one two punch … so we can be unstoppable.”

“We just want to win. We want this more than anybody,” said Jackson, 18, an Al Raby senior, who hopes to attend the University of Colorado.

The team admits poor team leadership affected their play last year. This year, everyone is stepping up to do their part.

“We are going to work harder than we did last year, and try to come out on top of the conference and do what we got to do to win a championship,” said Daniel Williams, an 18-year-old Raiders’ middle linebacker, who is interested in engineering.

That hard work is evident in the Raiders’ grueling practice schedule, which starts at 6 a.m. before school and begins again after school at 4 p.m.

Team members say they realize this season’s competition will again be stiff. The school to beat is King High School, the South Side school favored to win the conference.

But for defensive end Isaac Johnson there is no favorite in his book since every team is the one to beat.

“You can never underestimate your opponent,” said Johnson, who was named preseason All-Public League defense by the Chicago Sun-Times.  “We are playing some tough teams this year.”

The underrated ranking doesn’t serve the athletes justice for all the hard work they put into football, said Raby’s coach D’Angelo Dereef. He said the team has had a see-saw showing sincwe the program started in 2005.

“The beginning doesn’t mean nothing. It is where you end up at the end of the season. So our kids look at that and say, it is a challenge to us,” he said.

During its first varsity season, the team had no senior players and went 0-8.  The following year, the Raiders went 6-3. In 2008, the school finished a perfect 9-0, capturing the Small School City Championship. In 2009, the school went 8-2. Last year, Raby moved into the Illini Conference League and finished 0-5.

Still, Dereef said his team has made steady gains without the right equipment, including a football field. To run drills, Raby practices in Garfield Park. Dereef said the football team has no sleds, no push pads or dummies. And to build speed and strength, players mostly use the weight room.

“And we are still able to compete with all the top schools,” said Dereef, who started the program. “Every school has to have those basic things and with a small school with a small budget we just can’t afford to do that.”

Hailing from a rough neighborhood and not having the same resources as other schools hasn’t diminished the spirit of the Raiders. 

“[Other teams] have the fundaments and everything, but we have heart and the will to come where we come from,” said Johnson, 17, a senior who is being recruited by such high-profile college programs as Michigan and Stanford. “Everybody on the team could be somewhere on the streets drug dealing. But they chose to play for us.”

That’s why Raiders receiver Jeremy Burkes plays football. The 17-year-old senior says the sport keeps him off the streets and hopefully will provide a scholarship to college.

“If it wasn’t for football or any other sports I would probably be outside on the blocks with my friends or homies, and God knows what I would be doing right now,” he said.

The dedication to the gridiron is mirrored in the classroom. Players are not allowed to suit up if they received grades lower than Cs, a policy implemented by Dereef. He wants students to prepare academically if a scholarship doesn’t come or a player gets hurt.

“Football is cake if you get your grades,” he said, noting that Al Raby seniors secured more than $1 million in college scholarships.

Balancing study and sports is a sacrifice players must make, Bradley added. With practice in the evening and morning, he stays up late or takes advantage of free periods to study. It has paid off for the senior who is a straight-A student and wants a career in construction management.

“I’m a sports person, but I’m a books person,” he said. “I like to get my work done first before anything because grades come first. Without your grades you can’t go anywhere.”

Why Al Raby?

Al Raby High School, 3545 W. Fulton, is located in the former Lucy Flower High School in East Garfield. The school is named after Albert Anderson Raby (1933-1988), who was a teacher at Chicago’s Hess Upper Grade Center. He also secured the support of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to desegregate schools and housing in Chicago between 1965 and 1967.