Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short wants more for his hometown of East Chicago, Ind.
The old, hard-working steel mill town is a 30-minute drive up I-90 West from Chicago, and that city’s violent culture has trickled down Lake Michigan to East Chicago neighborhoods. East Chicago has an unemployment rate of 11.1 percent as of May, when Indiana’s was 5.8 and the national rate was 6.3.
Short’s high school, Central High, had a graduation rate of 62 percent when he was a senior and was labeled a “dropout factory” in a national analysis.
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One year into the NFL after the Panthers selected him in the second round of the 2013 draft, Short is trying to help his hometown right itself. His charity isn’t in the form of a free football camp, as so many athletes do, but something more practical. Short will donate 10,000 library books to East Chicago public schools this year after raising $5,000 via an online book drive and matching the donation plus more.
“My city is really bad right now,” Short said last week from Wofford College, where the Panthers are in training camp. “I have a lot of things in mind that I want to do to help East Chicago, but obviously I’m here, so that’s limiting the things. Just trying to get the book drive together and show these guys I care about my city and really trying to give back.”
Growing up, he saw crime and drugs take many of his friends down the wrong path. Short said he believes giving a young man a book may keep him from picking up a weapon.
“(The culture) bothers me a lot because I have nieces and nephews, 13 or 14, going in as sophomores in high school,” Short said. “Girls like guys, and all these guys have this tough guy persona. My nieces, I don’t know if they like it or not. Wrong place at the wrong time, anything can happen. So I’m just trying to give these guys the right route that I went.
“It’s not going to be easy. It takes time and hard work.”
In pre-draft interviews with potential NFL suitors, Short fielded questions he regarded as odd, but ones that aren’t uncommon for players who hail from troubled areas.
“The biggest question I had coming from East Chicago was, ‘Are you in a gang?’ ” Short said. “There was one question, have I ever shot anybody and not get caught? That’s crazy to me.”
A town of about 30,000 people, East Chicago takes up 16 square miles of Lake County. The county has more than 2,000 gang members “floating through the area at any given time,” East Chicago police chief Mark Becker said.
“We have some influence from Chicago-based gangs that come into our city, both to recruit gang members or to take over corners and sell drugs and carry out other violent crimes,” he said. “If you don’t make a hard charge at things, it could go either way.”
Along with the crime from Chicago coming south, East Chicago also neighbors Gary, Ind., a city that’s seen 22 murders this year through July.
In 2012, when Becker became chief, the city was reportedly the most dangerous city in northwest Indiana with its per capita crime. Overall crime has gone down by 6 percent in each of the past two years for its lowest numbers since records were kept in 1995. East Chicago’s six-month report for 2014 shows overall crime down 18 percent from this time last year, though violent crimes rose from 78 to 109 in the first six months.
“We expect that,” Becker said. “We don’t accept it but we have to expect it. Overall if the trend keeps going, we’ll be able to stave off the trend for generations to come and keep this city safe.”
Short is one of the success stories from East Chicago, which also claims San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich, former major leaguer Kenny Lofton and blues musician Mighty Mo Rodgers as native sons.
Mayor Anthony Copeland grew up at 3929 Guthrie St., known to him as a complex “but others may call it a project.” Just down the road is Block Avenue, where Short and current Orlando Magic guard E’Twaun Moore grew up.
They played basketball together every day at Linear Park, just northeast of Guthrie Street. The two went on to star at Central in basketball and won the 2007 state championship. Short chose football and Moore stuck to basketball.
Both went to Purdue, and Moore was drafted in the second round by Celtics in 2011. Short was taken by the Panthers in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft.
“When they decided they would go pro,” Copeland said, “that brought joy across the whole community.”
Cathleen Laporte founded Athletes for Charity 10 years ago after realizing kids may take the advice of a star athlete before they hear her.
“I could say a million times, ‘Do homework, study for tests,’ but they don’t hear me,” Laporte said. “But if Kawann goes back to his school in East Chicago, then it will be, ‘Kawann told me I have to do my homework, so I can’t go do this today.’ ”
Laporte connected with Short through Anthony Heygood, Short’s Purdue teammate and a linebacker who was in Carolina’s training camp in 2009 and has worked with Laporte in the past.
Short linked up with Laporte earlier this year, and the two began to think about something greater than a football camp. With the troubles youth face in East Chicago, the duo decided a book drive could leave a lasting impression on kids.
“When we sat down with Kawann, our first thought was we need to partner with the police and fire departments, local youth organizations that are already there so we’re not reinventing the wheel,” said Laporte, who began Athletes for Charity with the likes of Jerome Bettis and Michael Strahan. “We’re just going to come in and introduce creative ways to reach the kids.”
In conjunction with book dealers, Short will get new reading books for K-12 at a discounted price. But he wants the kids to read the books, so he’s offering incentives such as art contests for the younger kids and essay contests for middle and high schoolers. Monthly winners will be picked, and Short will send signed footballs, mini helmets and photos, and write back to the students.
After the NFL season, Short will take two weeks to be principal for a day at all eight public schools, meeting and eating lunch with kids throughout the day.
Short will ride a bus with kids from the school district to Purdue and show them around campus and give them Purdue merchandise.
Short will also take part in a joint effort by the police and school board to curb a growing truancy issue. Becker, the police chief, said the state has a goal of 95-percent class attendance, and Central High is at 92 , which he called very troubling.
“We’re trying to come up with programs to engage our kids and keep them focused on the task at hand, to keep him out of the gangs’ hands and into the teachers’ hands,” Becker said. “To have an NFL persona here, one that’s well known to the community already, it’s going to help us get that message out there.”
Next summer after all the academic-related activities are complete, Short will host his free football camp in East Chicago.
What the city needs
Short is happy to finally give back after an overwhelming rookie season that forced him to wait until the offseason to do charity work.
After starting last year slowly, Short finished with 1 1/2 sacks, a forced fumble and 30 tackles. He remains a primary backup at defensive tackle for one of the best defenses in the NFL.
He’s even more recognized in his hometown when he goes back.
“You see these little kids running around calling your name,” Short said. “They respect what I do and now it’s a whole thing of keeping this persona I have going and not letting these guys see that I took a wrong route here. Just showing these guys that coming from East Chicago, anybody can do it, now it’s just how and when you want to do it.”
Copeland, the mayor, could also be that mentor, but he’s 59 years old and believes there may be a “continental divide” between him and the youth of East Chicago.
That’s why he needs Short.
“You have him coming in saying, ‘I played in these very backyards that you’re playing in, look where I am now. But I got there through what?’ ” Copeland said. “Going to school, applying myself, getting my education and sports is secondary. He’s a testimony. He went through the test, and that’s why he can give the testimony.”