It was late on a chilly night in November 1989 when Vocational made one of the most significant plays in Chicago Public League football history.
First-year coach Chuck Chambers called for a pass and quarterback Shawn Calhoun found receiver Frank Mobley in the end zone. Three minutes and 17 seconds later, the Cavaliers had stunned No. 1-ranked St. Rita, 14-10, in the second round of the 6A state playoffs. The victory marked only the third win ever by a team from the Public League over a team from the Catholic League, then considered the monolithic crown jewel of Chicago football.
“We hadn’t had any success against the Catholic League,” offensive coordinator Dave Underwood said. “It was still an unreachable barrier at that time, and coach Chambers breached it. It was huge.”
Chambers — who continued on as Vocational head coach until 2009 and most recently served as assistant to his son, Cassius Chambers, at Harlan this past season — died Monday at the age of 73.
The Chicago football scene he saw in his final season of coaching was far different than the one he was introduced to as an assistant at Julian in the early 1980s.
“What he wanted to show — and I think a lot of Public Leagues have taken on this mantra now — was that even with the understanding that we’re under-resourced … we have opportunity,” said Jaton Jackson, a Vocational lineman from 1993-1994. “What you put into (our teams), you can get out. They will be as successful as they think, and as successful as you would want them to be.”
Jackson transferred to the South Chicago high school as a junior with zero prior football experience. Chambers identified his size and athleticism and, within two years, developed Jackson into a Division I-caliber player, earning him a scholarship to Southern Illinois.
Now Chicago Public Schools’ director of football, Jackson said his story is prototypical of Chambers’ perspective on the role of football in the city.
“He treated the sport as a catalyst for life for young kids growing up [in Chicago],” Jackson said. “If you respect it, then it will respect you, and it will propel you.”
In Jackson’s 1994 senior year, Vocational went 9-0 in the regular season and earned the No. 1 seed in 6A in an at-the-time shocking decision by the IHSA. The Cavaliers eventually lost to Waubonsie Valley in the second round by a single point.
Although Chambers wasn’t able to replicate the glory of 1989 and 1994 later in his coaching career, he still finished with an all-time record of 114-89 at a school that had previously not won a single postseason game in its history. He did so with a focus on the run game — Underwood recalls a particular counter play that he considered the “staple” of the Cavaliers’ offense — and a personality that was as caring on the inside as grizzly on the exterior.
“Everybody knew he cared about them, everybody knew, but you weren’t going to get that out of him just like that,” Underwood said. “He loved you and had your best wellbeing at mind, but he was tough, definitely tough. Cranky and ornery, he’d just make you laugh,” he added, unable to resist chuckling at the memories.
Chambers learned how to run a high school program successfully from the legendary likes of J.W. Smith, whom he coached under at Julian, and longtime Robeson coach Roy Curry, a close friend.
Curry said he was constantly impressed by Chambers’ intense work ethic and dedication to coaching.
“He was the type of person that just worked hard all the time. Football with Chuck was 365 days a year,” Curry said. “Right now, God’s got another great coach up in heaven.”
Later in his career, Chambers helped pass on that advice and know-how to the next generation. Cassius Chambers said his father provided invaluable support on the Harlan sidelines last autumn, even though he’d had to adjust his stern coaching style to fit modern-day culture.
“He was a mastermind behind everything that I was trying to do as a head coach,” Cassius Chambers said. “He was there for me every moment of the way and helped guide us the right way on how to be successful.”
On rare moments away from the gridiron, the late Chambers enjoyed relaxing on his boat, musing on subjects such as the differences between coaching football and girls’ basketball (he headed the Lane Tech girls’ basketball program while serving as a Julian assistant in the 1980s). Elton Harris, another close friend within the Public League coaching circuit, was often invited aboard.
“We’d sit down there and talk about sports, about football, about life. He was much different, much more calm,” said Harris, who remains head coach at Hubbard. “That gave him peace doing things like that. Coach said, ‘Find something to do other than just coaching, coaching, coaching. You’ve got to have time to wind down.'”
On the field, however, Chambers was never wound down, and his steadfast dedication to building a successful program at Vocational echoed throughout Chicago.
Between 1960 and 1988, the Catholic League had won 27 of 29 Prep Bowls, then played annually between the Catholic and Public League champions. Even though Vocational never actually appeared in a Prep Bowl during Chambers’ time, his statement playoff win over St. Rita still drastically shifted the balance of power — from 1989 to 1999, the Public League representative won six of the 11 matchups.
“When he had the ability to successfully beat St. Rita in ‘89,” Jackson said, “it was cemented that you can achieve whatever at whatever level you’re at.”