RANTOUL — Brian Urlacher admits he hadn't heard of Lincoln's Challenge Academy until recently. Now, however, the Pro Bowl Chicago Bears middle linebacker appears to be sold on its worth.
Urlacher was in Rantoul on Monday to record media spots to promote the academy.
Lincoln's Challenge is a military boot camp operated by the Illinois National Guard that works to turn around the lives of troubled youth. Stepping out of a van after he and his brother, Casey, had been flown into Rantoul by helicopter, Urlacher looked like he belonged, with his shaved head and football player's physique.
"I think it's a great cause," Urlacher said. "I didn't know a great deal about it until I was approached about it."
Urlacher was introduced to staff, had a meal, viewed a presentation that explained the academy's purpose, toured the facility, spoke to cadets in the academy gymnasium and recorded the media spots.
Col. William Cobetto, director of special staff and the federal agent for the academy, said the academy board of directors has been wanting to secure a professional athlete to serve as a spokesperson for the academy as a recruiting tool.
"We don't have a recruiting budget," Cobetto said, adding that retired athletes such as Reggie Smith and Bryce Fisher have visited the academy to speak to cadets. But they advised the board that it would be better to find an athlete who is still playing to serve as a spokesman.
The board landed on the idea of Urlacher. And they don't come much bigger in Illinois — literally and figuratively.
Urlacher said he knows a couple of people who are big (advocates) of Lincoln's Challenge, and they convinced him to record the media spots. He was not paid for the work.
"The numbers they told us" regarding how many Illinois students drop out of high school (about 450,000 a year) and how many are helped by the academy made an impression on Urlacher.
"I like it because it's voluntary. You can leave when you want."
This year's class numbered 550 cadets. About 300 are expected to graduate June 11. (The target number is 315).
Cobetto said the first two weeks are the toughest on the cadets as they adjust to the academy, where discipline rules — something many of them have not had growing up.
Renee Schoonover, Lincoln's Challenge executive secretary, said about 70 percent of the cadets earn their GED (high school equivalence degree).
Nearly 12,000 cadets have graduated from Lincoln's Challenge, which opened in the mid-1990s.
Funding is always a challenge. The federal government covers three-fourths of the budget and the state the remainder.
"Even though it's a federal/state program, there's never enough money," Cobetto said.
Responding to a question by Urlacher, Cobetto said Lincoln's Challenge does not turn away any cadets — unlike some states' military academies. Lincoln's Challenge could house up to 600 cadets per 22-week class session.
Last month, Gov. Pat Quinn announced the allocation of $34.4 million for construction of a new academy campus.
Bids for construction will be taken in late 2012. Five new buildings will be erected as part of the approximately 144,000-square-foot project.
Urlacher said he would like to remain involved with Lincoln's Challenge if possible.
The athlete, who said he grew up in a "small oil-field town" (Lovington, N.M.), said the academy offers a second chance for many young people who wish to take advantage of it.
"If you drop out of high school it's kind of hard to get your life in the right direction," Urlacher said. "I'm not saying that dropping out of high school is the worst thing you can do, but this is a good way to get your life back on track."