By Patricia Babcock McGraw
Winning might be the easiest part.
And that's saying something. Because at Round Lake, where the head football coach is often worried about whether or not his players are getting dinner when they get home from practice, the wins definitely don't come all that easily.
That's what has made the 2017 season special already.
The football team has started 2-0 for the first time since 2006, already an improvement from the 1-8 mark posted by the Panthers in four of the last six seasons.
"We've just never done very well, so each year you kind of doubt that anything will change," Round Lake senior running back Anthony Tellez said. "There was so much negativity around the school about fooball. People would always be saying negative things. No one thought we could win."
Maybe that's because it is not just opponents that Round Lake is trying to beat.
There are everyday challenges for students and athletes at Round Lake High School that may not exist at most other high schools in Lake County, or at least not at the same degree.
For instance, every student at Round Lake qualifies for the free and reduced lunch program. And many eat breakfast there for free, too. Most students don't have their own cars, and many have after-school jobs that aren't for spending money, but for household income.
One football player leaves practice every day and goes directly to the train station where he rides down to Chicago and works in the city at night for his family.
"At every other school, it seems like kids have everything they need right at home," senior linebacker Carlos Cardenas said. "They have a family, clothes on their back, food on the table, parents who love them.
"Some of us don't have all that. We don't have a lot here. It's a little tougher here."
There are economic struggles in the Round Lake community that are very real. There are also a lot of single-parent households, and there are even some outside influences, such as neighborhood gangs, that can pull kids in the wrong direction.
"I don't think it would be dramatic at all to say that some kids on our team are being saved by football," said Round Lake coach Cristo Garza, himself a Round Lake graduate (1996) and former Panther football player.
Garza says that being on the football team gives boys at Round Lake a reason to get better grades, so that they can stay eligible and play. It gives them a reason to show up to class on time. It gives them a reason to show up to school at all.
"I had one kid tell me last week that he was going to have to drop out of school to go work with his dad," Garza said. "But since he is on the football team, he was going to get to stay in school and graduate."
Since they have football, the Panthers are also guaranteed of eating, too.
Garza had started to notice that his players were more sluggish than they should have been during double practices in the preseason. So about three years ago, he began feeding his players between sessions. Usually the menu is something simple like hot dogs and chips, but it's a meal nonetheless.
"You would think that we were feeding these kids Thanksgiving dinner," said Garza, who uses his own money to fund the hot dog dinners. "They were so excited and so thankful. For some of them, it might be the only meal they got all day. You'd like to think that wasn't the case, but that's the reality.
"If you had to sum up a Round Lake kid in general, you'd say that a Round Lake kid is kind of always waiting for something bad to happen. They work hard, they think they're doing the right thing, but then Mom or Dad loses their job and they've suddenly got to move and change everything in their life. Or they've got to drop out of school because they have to go to work to help out the family. Or they don't know if they'll have food in the refrigerator when they get home."
Now that the season has started, the Panthers are also getting fancy team dinners once or twice a week, funded by former players and alumni of the school who are determined to give back.
"The meals are great," senior lineman Ethan Gomez said. "We don't have a lot of funding that other schools have. It's really nice (of the coaches and the alumni) to get those meals for us. A lot of the guys are so excited because it's their only chance to eat something really good that day. They'll go back for seconds."
The idea is that a properly fueled football player might be not only a better player, but also a better student and a better person. At least that's what is happening at Round Lake.
"If you look around at our school, you're either a good kid or a bad kid. There's not much in between," said senior wide receiver and defensive back Julio Pacheco. "Sports gives you a better way to be good. Most of the athletes are good kids because they want to be able to play, especially when you're winning like we are right now. That motivates you to do the right thing. I know my grades have improved because of football."
Cardenas says his life could be drastically different without football. And not just his academic life.
"I'm not even going to lie to you, without football, I'd probably be out of school right now and working every day, or I'd be in jail," said Cardenas, who had to miss a majority of summer practices so that he could work to help provide for his family. "Football keeps me on the right path because I fell in love with football and the players on our team and the family we have and I want to be able to keep playing football with them.
"Our team is like brothers. We all go through pretty much the same thing (on a personal level) around here. We've all been through adversity and the coaches and the people who help us with everything, like those team meals, make us feel like there are people out there who really care about us. That means a lot to all of us."
As a graduate of Round Lake, Garza knew all of this when he took the job as head coach two years ago. He was prepared to work as hard for his players off the field as he does on the field. He remembers the everyday struggles and challenges that his players face. He saw them first-hand when he was a teenager living in the community.
"When you become a coach at Round Lake, you become a father, a brother, a social worker, a psychologist," Garza said. "The positive feelings that these kids can get by being on the team, whether it be getting a meal, or being a part of something bigger than themselves, it's amazing how far that goes with some kids.
"And it's so rewarding for them and the coaches when we can also win some games, like we are now. To see us succeed, it's just so appreciated by everyone. No one is taking it for granted."
• Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw