Celebrating Our Everyday Champions by Jess Larson

Each February at our Anniversary Field of Dreams gala, we honor five different champions, and this year’s lineup is nothing short of inspiring both on a national and local level.

We’re celebrating the incredible career and grit of former WNBA player and gold medalist Tamika Catchings. We’re cheering on Dr. Jen Welter, the first female coach in the NFL who is changing the game for women in football. We’re applauding Tamar Manasseh and the mothers of M.A.S.K. who are fighting to end violence in Chicago block by block and to protect Chicago’s children. We’re commending Jas Boothe, Chicago native, disabled Army veteran, and cancer survivor, for founding Final Salute, Inc. to serve homeless female veterans. And we’re excited to see Bridget Gainer, Cook County Commissioner, and hear about her work to advance the city of Chicago.

These women are changing the game both in Chicago and on a national level. They’re taking on local challenges in Chicago and standing up for women and girls across the nation. Learning about each of these women’s incredible accomplishments continues to inspire me each day as I work with the rest of our Development team to prepare for the gala. But there’s another group of champions that we are celebrating tonight: our girls.

Girls in Chicago, Baltimore, Dallas and Bloomington are the champions that we interact with every day. Along with our gala champions this year, our girls demonstrate all that it means to have the heart of a champion. They are courageous, resourceful and bold. They practice teamwork and grit as they learn new sports. They are our champions.

You can clearly see this in the drawings that they do for the gala. Each year, we get some design help from our girls, especially when it comes to the Thank You cards that each guest gets to take home at the end of the event. We sit them down for 20 minutes, tell the about the theme for the evening and let them draw. Some of the drawings become the Thank You cards we pass out at favors; others decorate the Girls in the Game office or become a part of a display around the city.

This year we asked the girls, what does it mean to have the heart of a champion? Here are some of their answers:


The pictures show a clear trend; champions don’t exist by themselves. They are leaders, they are teammates, and most importantly, they encourage each other.

I’m so excited to hear from our five champions this evening at Field of Dreams. Their words of wisdom and inspiration stay with me long after the event is over. But I also have the privilege of working with the everyday champions that Girls in the Game serves throughout Chicago, our girls. Their words, their thoughts and their actions inspire me each day. They truly have the heart of a champion.

Behind Every Champion Lies a Great Coach by Mary Banker

There are moments in life that stick. A single sound, smell, or sight can take you straight back to those moments. There are still times that I can hear his voice, telling me to hustle, to push harder, to show heart. He knew who I was before I ever did and he drove me to become that woman. He did that for all of us.

When I graduated high school, I had no idea that there was inequity in female sports. I come from a small farm town called Orfordville, Wisconsin. I am proud to report they have crossed the 1,000 mark on their population sign. There is one stop light and lots of tractors on the country roads. As you picture this tiny town it may have you wondering why or how there were so many opportunities for female athletes. The answer; Coach Chuck Kohlhepp.

He helped build a program for youth basketball that fed into the middle school and then into his winning high school program. I remember sitting in the stands watching the varsity girls play. I was in awe of the players, I knew them each by name. I would daydream about being just like them and playing for Coach Kohlhepp. What’s a bit ironic is that I almost missed the opportunity to play basketball.

Coach Kohlhepp with former athletes at his Hall of Fame induction.

I loved being active as a kid, I played with my best friend Paul and brother David all day long and did whatever they did. We had a hoop, so we played basketball from time to time. The problem was that I didn’t know any of the rules of basketball but I played with them anyway. They did not teach me the rules, I tried to learn but instead they yelled at me for being in the ‘lane for more than 3 seconds’. I kept asking what the lane was, they never told me.

Back at school Coach Kohlhepp walked through the cafeteria and mentioned that basketball was starting the next day. That’s when it happened. I laughed a little because of my embarrassment and told him I wanted to go out but I didn’t know the rules. My friends had all played in 5th and 6th grade, I felt so far behind. Coach turned to me and said; ‘Well you’re not going to learn any younger’.  My mind was made up, I joined the team and played basketball all through high school. I was even recruited to play basketball in college (I decided to run collegiate track instead).

Through my athletic career, I have had unbelievable support and opportunities both at the high school and collegiate level. There are a lot of girls who do not have the opportunities that I did. There are a lot of girls who do not have the confidence to try a new sport when they reach middle school or high school. This is the reason Girls in the Game was established. We are working to provide equitable opportunities for girls to play sports, to help them find their voice and become confident enough to use it.

Coach Kohlhepp at the ceremony for his induction into the Parkview Hall of Fame

Coach changed the course of my life with that single sentence. He wanted all of us to play, to be kids, to love sports, especially basketball. He opened the gym for us every Monday night, he made it the place to be, it became tradition. He encouraged us to play summer league together, to go to camps, to communicate, give each other credit, work hard, to do well in school. When we asked him to open the gym in the morning at 6am during the summer in addition to the Monday night open gym he did. Coach showed up for us, he drove us to be great which prepared us to be successful in life.

**Coach Chuck Kohlhepp was inducted into the Parkview Hall of Fame on January 27th, 2017. Coach had over 150 people at his reception to celebrate him, share stories and enjoy community. Coach Kohlhepp built and coached winning teams in girls’ basketball and softball. What most people don’t know is that he coached ten seasons of football and the seasons were tough. John Ponyicsanyi articulates better than I ever could who Coach Kohlhepp was as a coach and a man.

A standing ovation for Coach Kohlhepp as he accepts his award

In celebration of his Hall of Fame induction, I wanted to share a Coach Kohlhepp story.

Those of us who were there at the beginning will remember: it didn’t take long for Coach Kohlhepp to become a legend at Parkview. His girls’ basketball and softball teams won early and often. His legacy rests on the performance of those teams, and rightfully so. With those teams, he brought the taste of victory to a school that had suffered through an awful lot of losing.

Those of us who played football for him saw a different kind of coach.

Our football program in the late 1980s was in disarray – during my four years of high school, our varsity team won four games total. Our freshman and junior varsity teams were about the same. With all the losing and hopelessness, we had a hard time fielding enough players for three squads, let alone putting together the kind of talent that could compete with a state powerhouse like Beloit Turner, who demolished us year after year. And by the end of the season, as the losses mounted, and the weather got cold and wet, and the days were short and the practices seemed endless, our numbers dwindled.

That was our view of Coach Kohlhepp, who was our football program’s assistant varsity and head junior varsity coach. We knew he was a great winner with his other teams, but now he suffered the losses along with the rest of us. Knowing him, he was probably suffering more.

My junior year, I split time between the varsity team and Coach Kohlhepp’s junior varsity team. I was mildly humiliated every night when the varsity practice ended and the more talented of my peers would head for the locker room, leaving me and a few other castoffs to stay late to practice with Coach Kohlhepp and the JV squad.

Why should I keep doing this? I remember thinking. It’s cold, I’m terrible, we never win anyway. And here I am, practicing twice as long as my friends, just to round out this JV squad. Basketball season’s coming up. Why not just quit?

And then, in the middle of my misery, came a moment that I’m sure Coach Kohlhepp forgot about long ago.

One of our varsity’s best players offered to play a game on the JV. He suggested he might play wide receiver – my position. With his blazing speed, and playing against inferior competition, all we needed to do was get him the ball.

“What do you think, Coach Kohlhepp?” one of the other coaches said excitedly. “Throw a few bombs? Let him score a few touchdowns?”

Coach Kohlhepp didn’t hesitate. “Screw that,” he said, though he may have used more colorful language. “I already HAVE a wide receiver.”

As the other coach shrugged and wandered away, Coach Kohlhepp caught me staring at him. I probably had a look of shock on my face, and something like an apology. Are you sure? I wanted to ask him. He’s a lot better than me… he probably COULD score a few touchdowns. We might win this week…

But there was no rethinking the decision. “Use him instead of you?” Coach Kohlhepp grumbled. “When you’re out here every night, busting your hump at practice…” He shook his head. “No WAY am I doing that.”

I wish I could say that the story has a marvelous happy ending, with a long string of victories for our team. I wish I could say I was so inspired I went on to become a star football player. Life doesn’t work that way.

We did end up eking out a couple of surprise victories against better teams. Coach Kohlhepp had hundreds of victories in his career; believe me when I tell you that the one or two victories by our woeful squad were among his greatest triumphs.

But as sweet as those were, it’s the moment when Coach Kohlhepp stood up for me that has stuck with me.

Coach Kohlhepp with his former athletes and students

After that night, I never thought about quitting again. Why would I quit on a coach who showed me – more vividly than anyone else ever has, before or since – that he wasn’t going to quit on me?

I said before that those of us on the JV football team saw a different kind of coach than the one who coached the excellent girls’ basketball and softball teams. But of course, we didn’t see a different coach at all. We saw the same guy. We had the same view of his dedication and loyalty and character.

Our team struggled to win a single game. But we still saw everything that made Coach Kohlhepp a Hall of Fame coach. And from his example, we learned the qualities that turn a person – a person, not just a player – into a winner.

Congratulations, Coach Kohlhepp! Our debt of gratitude is deep, and your honor is richly deserved.

Embracing the Heart of a Champion by Bridget Murphy

On the path of life, we all encounter obstacles. Whether it’s a challenge we must overcome, or a rut in which we get stuck, there are things that hold us back from realizing our full potential. Champions are not made because of a lack of obstacles. Rather, they are defined by one’s response to challenges and the ability to learn and grow from negative experiences. At the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC), our girls had the opportunity to meet and talk with two champions who overcame obstacles similar to the ones our participants are currently facing.

Representatives from the Cabrini Green Legal Aid Visible Voices peer support group joined our Monday group a few weeks ago. After playing some games and ice breakers, we had some time for our guests to tell their stories. Both women shared why they were incarcerated and their journeys since release.

Maria spoke of the intense anger she felt in response to how she was treated growing up. She lived in the projects, had little parental support and constantly felt as if she and people who looked like her were being overlooked and forgotten. In prison, this feeling only intensified until she decided that she was going to channel that anger towards improving her life. She read and studied everything she could and took every class they offered. She used those same emotions that once got her in trouble to make her life and the lives of those around her better.

Colette inspired our girls to make their own choices and have lasting change. Photo via University of Chicago.

Colette shared her story of multiple prison sentences and struggles with her family and neighborhood. She wanted to fight everyone and everything, and found solace in her block and the street life. This led her down a path from which she didn’t think she could escape. She found the strength to pull herself up when she learned to accept the things she couldn’t change. She said that she would never be able to change where she came from, or the choices that others in her life would make, but she could focus on her own choices and doing the right thing. This frame of mind allowed her to find peace and start making real and lasting changes in her life.

All of our Girls in the Game participants were moved by the stories the women shared. Some cried, and one girl shared how she felt scared and angry in her current situation. The teens were inspired by learning that prison is not the end of the road. Having the heart of a champion means knowing that where you are doesn’t have to be where you’re going. Persevering through life’s hardships and channeling your challenges to reach your goals is what makes strong women and champions.

During our programming at JTDC, we regularly talk about goals for the future, and though they have made mistakes, we have future business owners, doctors, lawyers and artists in our groups. Maria and Colette reminded the girls that their goals do not have to be abstract. They can do anything if they persevere and work hard. Their detainment is a bump in the road, not a destination, and because our girls have the hearts of champions, they will be able to transcend their current environment. The champions at the JTDC Girls in the Game program will let their strength and courage define their journeys rather than the nature of their obstacles.

A Young Girl’s Courage by Ashley Pilgrim

Courage is something that can’t be taught or learned. It isn’t something that someone can force you to have. It is something that, in the moment, comes from within. At Girls in the Game, when we give our lessons on courage, we are simply showing these young girls that they can have courage too, because it is already within them. Every time a girl tries something new, every time she steps out of her comfort zone, she is demonstrating even the smallest bit of courage.

Coaching in Baltimore has been such a wonderful experience for me, and has allowed me to see courage in these young girls in many different ways. One time in particular, I was told that one of the participants was having a rough day. As I went to talk to the her to see what was going on, I noticed that she was off by herself in the corner of the activity space, crying.

When she shared with me what she was going through, I learned what a tough situation she had at home and that an important family member had died a year or so before. I learned that every day she wakes up, takes care of anything her siblings need, is always there for her friends when they need her and is constantly trying to make others happy. She turned away from the other girls as she was talking to me because she told me she didn’t want them to see her cry, because she is strong.

Coaches listen to girls and teach them how to be strong and courageous.

Even though we share examples of courage every time we coach the girls, I learned that this young girl displays courage every day in her life, every time she wakes up, and she doesn’t even realize it. Every time she puts someone else before her own wants, every time she takes care of one of her siblings, every time she supports one of her friends, she is being courageous in every sense of the word.

She is not afraid of what is going to happen to her. She is not afraid of her surroundings. She wakes up determined that she’s not going to let her situation get the best of her. She is determined to be strong for the people around her, even though she doesn’t always feel strong. She is courageous because she knows that no one can stop her, and she will be afraid of nothing.

Ashley works for our Girls in the Game program in Baltimore, coaching girls part time while completing her major in Exercise Science at Towson University.