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1982 Robeson Raiders Still Only Public League Team to Reach Football Final

By Justin Breen | November 20, 2013 6:58am
 The 1982 Robeson High School football team, which lost in the Class 5A state championship game, remains the only Chicago Public League team to ever reach an IHSA state final in football.
Robeson 1982 football
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ENGLEWOOD — "I guess we can smoke our cigars now, like the 1972 Miami Dolphins," Mickey Pruitt said Tuesday from Robeson High School.

Like those Dolphins, who remain the NFL's lone team to win a Super Bowl during an undefeated season, Pruitt is part of a historic football squad.

His 1982 Robeson Raiders are still the only Chicago Public League outfit to ever reach an IHSA state championship game, which they lost 16-12 to Rockford Guilford in the Class 5A final.

And with Phillips High School's 41-8 defeat to Geneseo in last week's state quarterfinals, the final public school team that had a shot this year at joining Robeson in Chicago lore was vanquished.

"The legacy still goes on," said Pruitt, of North Lawndale, who went on to play in the NFL, including a few seasons with the Chicago Bears. "Some of us are probably tired of saying we're the only team, but it's the truth, and we can't take that away from the 1982 Robeson team."

 Robeson High School football players Tiffany Lee (50) and Vince Tolbert (81) hold up the IHSA Class 5A State Runner-up trophy after a 16-12 loss to Rockford Guilford in the 1982 state championship game.
Robeson High School football players Tiffany Lee (50) and Vince Tolbert (81) hold up the IHSA Class 5A State Runner-up trophy after a 16-12 loss to Rockford Guilford in the 1982 state championship game.
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DNAinfo/Justin Breen

'Next Year Is Not A Given'

The IHSA began its football postseason in 1974, and since then, only six Public League teams have even reached a state semifinal. None has achieved that feat since Hubbard in 2005.

Roy Curry, the head coach of the 1982 Robeson team, doesn't think his state finalist club will have company for years.

"I would be happy, and it would be about time, but I don't see it happening in the near future," said Curry, of Calumet Heights.

Curry said there are three major issues with Chicago Public League teams: lack of numbers, lack of coaching and lack of solid line execution.

"We don't have the programs that schools in the suburbs, Catholic leagues and Downstate have," he said. "We have 30-some guys in the whole program, so it's difficult to win when you don't have different levels of football feeding up every year.

"And our coaching in the city is not up to par with the coaches elsewhere. Some of our principals are hiring people that are not fully qualified. We may have one or two coaches on every staff that's qualified to coach, but the majority of staff is not qualified, especially at the lower levels. So players aren't getting the basic fundamentals.

"And we don't have great [offensive and defensive] line play. We are as athletic in the skill positions as anyone, but the line is where games are won. Good teams stop us, and they just block us off the ball. The line play for the city is killing us," he said.

Pruitt, 48, who is the regional athletic director in charge of football for Chicago Public Schools, said of the nearly 90 Chicago Public League teams, only about 10 have three levels of football: varsity, junior varsity/sophomore and freshman.

Pruitt, the star running back and safety for Robeson in 1982, said some Chicago prep teams can have a great year, but the lack of a foundation usually leads to a one-and-done experience.

"We've seen it in the past," Pruitt said. "The Robesons, the Morgan Parks, the Hubbards — with the talent they have, they have to capitalize when they have a chance.

"Next year is not a given."

Getting Hurt 'Wasn't An Option'

The year 1982 consistently comes up in conversations involving Vince Tolbert.

Tolbert was a tight end and defensive end for the Raiders that year. He caught the winning touchdown in the state semifinal victory over Antioch at Soldier Field, which sent Robeson to the finals against Guilford at Northwestern University's Dyche Stadium.

"Thirty-one years. You know what's amazing about that is that we're still talking about that team," said Tolbert, a building engineer at a Downtown high-rise.

Robeson dressed only 25 varsity players. Tolbert said getting hurt "wasn't an option because one injury meant you would lose three to four positions."

Tolbert, Pruitt and many other Raiders never left the field.

They were toughened up that season, beginning with brutal daily summer workouts. Tolbert said the players were far more afraid of the running, bear-rolling, bear-crawling and collisions in practice than they were of game competition.

Robeson lost to Tilden in the regular season but gained indirect revenge in the playoffs after beating Antioch, which had topped Tilden in the quarterfinals.

In the championship against Guilford, which featured 2,000-yard passer Jeff "Whitey" Anderson and a plethora of talented receivers, Robeson led most of the game before a late turnover resulted in a Guilford touchdown with less than a minute remaining.

Curry, 74, still salts over the turnover, in which an offensive lineman ran the wrong blocking scheme and missed a blitzing Guilford linebacker. The defender hit Pruitt as he received the handoff and forced a fumble that Guilford recovered before the game-winning TD.

"We outplayed them, outcoached them, out-everythinged them until the end of the game," Curry said. "Our team could do everything. We could do everything. We lost that ballgame truly on our mistake."

When reached by phone, Guilford coach Jan Jamison, 76, took a different viewpoint of his team's state championship.

"Robeson was a very nice team, and I know Curry had mentioned to people that they should have beaten us, but that's not true," said Jamison, who retired from coaching in 2000. "They had some real good players, but many of them played two ways, and we pretty much platooned the whole way. So I think we were able to wear them down."

Jamison, whose wife Nancy is a Chicago native who graduated from the former Calumet High School, said he's surprised Robeson remains the city's lone entry in the state final. He doesn't have a definitive answer as to the reason why, but thinks it has something to do with Curry.

"Probably the city hasn't had coaches that were as committed as Coach Curry was to Robeson," Jamison said. "Football is in his blood, and you can't get it out."

'We Deserved To Win That Game'

The 1982 Class 5A State Runner-up trophy rests comfortably in the office of Robeson Athletic Director Isaac Carter.

Carter, a Robeson alum who went on to graduate from Princeton University, likes to show off the hardware when visitors come to the school.

The trophy remains shiny, but part of the "E" in "Runner-up" is missing.

"The 'E' is sick," Curry said.

And like that letter, Curry and the other Raiders believe a triumph in the final is the only thing missing from that special '82 season.

"We were a better team than they were," Curry said. "We deserved to win that game."