Phil Macklin: fallen star
The picture shows Phil Macklin in his natural element – a great football player surrounded by fellow high school gridders basking in the glow of a bright future including college and, possibly, NFL stardom.
There were, just to name a few, T.J. Duckett (now with the Seattle Seahawks), Chris Simms (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Albert Haynesworth (Tennessee Titans) – and Macklin was right there with them on the Reebok All-American football team. Treated to a trip to Baltimore to appear on an ESPN program about the top 25 college recruits in 1999, the Reebok All-Americans were considered the very best young football players in the country. Macklin, one of the biggest names on then-coach Ron Turner's signing list in the spring of 1999, was considered among the cream of that special crop.
"He was one of the greatest athletes ever to come out of the Chicago area," said Tom Lemming, the Illinois-based football recruiting guru. "He was a super athlete."
Lemming described Macklin, an all-purpose player at Proviso East projected to be a linebacker at Illinois, as a "guy who had everything going for him" – a can't-miss prospect.
Now flash forward 10 years, and here's Macklin again, smiling, personable, muscular. The picture of health, he looks like he still could play. But the setting is not the gridiron. His football career has been over for a long time.
It's a prison visiting room at the Lawrence Correctional Center in Sumner, a small community in tiny Lawrence County located along the Indiana border. Macklin is serving a 24-year sentence for armed robbery, and it's his second stint in prison. Locked up since 2006, the 28-year-old Macklin has a release date of 2018.
"I know I've disappointed people," he said.
Macklin's story represents the dark side of athletes' dreams of living large – a cautionary tale of how can't-miss prospects not only miss but sometimes implode.
Bad decisions, bad character, bad luck – or some combination thereof – take a toll on every year's class of recruits, leaving the rancid taste of what-might-have-been in the mouths of those on the casualty list.
"If (Macklin) had just listened to authority figures, he had NFL talent," Lemming said. "But this is not the first time I've seen that happen."
Listening to people who know what they're talking about seems simple enough. But, like many young people, Macklin clearly didn't take what he heard to heart.
"He never followed through on anything," said Osia Lewis, now a first-year defensive coordinator at Texas-El Paso but in 1999 the Illini assistant coach who helped recruit Macklin.
Although he feels himself more sinned against than sinner, Macklin, too, realizes the opportunities he's lost. He said he still loves the game but rarely watches professional football on television.
"Knowing that I should be out there ... it gets frustrating," he said. "I see a lot of guys I played with and played against. I should probably be in my sixth year (in the NFL) or something like that."
Macklin, who grew up in a home with his mother and stepfather, was a three-sport star at Proviso East High in Maywood – track, basketball and football. But football was where he really excelled.
At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, he played running back, wide receiver, linebacker and defensive back. Rarely leaving the field, Macklin also ran back punts and kickoffs. His senior season, he had nearly 1,000 yards in receptions for nine touchdowns, rushed for 430 yards, made 99 tackles, intercepted six passes (three returned for touchdowns) and ran back five punts or kickoffs for touchdowns. He was a News-Gazette All-Stater and The Chicago Sun-Times All-Area Player of the Year.
What set him apart was blazing speed – NFL speed – that made him a big hitter and made college recruiters drool.
"Speed is a killer. ... If you have speed, momentum will make the difference. If you have that momentum going, you'll run straight through the ball carrier," he said.
Macklin also had excellent leadership skills. In 1998, that meant a state high school playoff appearance and Proviso East's most successful season in 40 years.
"Kids on the team did what he told them to do," said Lewis, the Illini recruiter.
Macklin was that rare total package – an athlete who could dominate a game from any number of positions.
To outward appearances, Macklin was a good citizen, too. Active in school programs, he didn't cause problems.
"He was never in any trouble," said his mother, Laverne Johnson. "We never had any police at our house."
But there were issues, both known and unknown. His classroom work was suspect, mostly because of laziness.
What would have been a greater concern – had anyone known – were his off-field associations. Macklin now freely admits, but kept from those close to him at the time, that he was a member of the Black P. Stones street gang and had been since age 13.
While acknowledging it was "my choice" to join, Macklin said gang membership came naturally to him.
"It was how I was brought up," he said. "It goes down the line from father, uncle, things like that."
Macklin contended many college and professional athletes are gang members, and he defended gang membership as not nearly as unsavory as some suggest.
"It teaches you loyalty. It teaches you discipline. It teaches you structure," he said.
Still, he was not willing to join in a discussion of those alleged virtues with coaches or some family members.
"That's probably something you don't tell a recruiter," Lewis said.
His mother also said she was unaware that her son was a gang member, although she said her former husband and Phil's father was.
"As far as his father being in a street gang, that was his father, and his father was not with us," said Johnson, the mother of two.
So academics were the only issue when it came to Macklin's recruitment. Lemming said a number of big-time schools stayed away from Macklin because of the academic questions, but not all. Macklin said Nebraska, Florida and Miami came courting but that he limited his choices to the Big Ten, quickly focusing on Turner's up-and-coming program at Illinois.
After a visit to campus, where he was hosted by former Illini Rameel Connor and Jameel Cook, Macklin said it was easy to commit.
"We all hit it off. They were eager to get me there, and I was eager to get there," he said.
An unrealized dream
Once Macklin signed with Illinois, his future was set. Or so it appeared.
There was the matter of academics, but UI coaches thought it could be resolved. Macklin was scheduled to enroll in the UI's summer Bridge Program, academic coursework designed to assist athletes with shortcomings in the classroom. But when summer came, Macklin wasn't on campus. He was in Maywood retaking a math class he failed in the spring semester.
That series of events disappointed and confounded Lewis. To him, it was all so simple: just take care of business. He said he told Macklin that all he had to do was "go to class, do the work."
"I told him that a million times. But kids, you tell them what they have to do and they hear what they want to hear," he said. "He flunked a class that would have got him into Illinois."
How does that happen?
Some gifted athletes, like non-athletes, just don't have the academic ability. Others fall prey to what Lemming calls the "superstar syndrome," in which they become so celebrated that even authority figures, like parents and coaches, "become sycophants."
"They can do no wrong. Their sense of entitlement goes through the roof," Lemming said. "They come to expect chance after chance after chance without end. ... I'm not sure it happened to Phil, but I've seen it happen. He was smart enough to get decent grades."
Flunking the math class was a mistake that could not be corrected. So Illini coaches fell back on Plan B, to send Macklin to Fork Union Military Academy, a prep school in Fork Union, Va. After a year there, he could enroll at the UI in fall 2000.
For a variety of reasons, he was almost immediately unhappy.
"I started to play football, but I didn't continue. I didn't see eye-to-eye with the coach," he said.
On top of that, Macklin, who was not married, was about to become a father.
Lewis said he received a phone call from Macklin, who told him, "I don't want to be here anymore,"
Macklin said he left Fork Union with no plan other than to go home and "work and support my child."
Macklin's departure marked the end of any relationship between him and the UI.
Rebirth on the gridiron
The theory of working for a living must not have been as appealing as the reality. Less than two years later, in fall 2001, Macklin was back on the football field at Harper Community College in Palatine.
The Harper College program began in 1971 under the leadership of John Eliasik. Thirty years later when Macklin arrived, Eliasik was still the head coach, and he had turned Harper into a top program, in the process becoming the all-time winningest coach in the National Junior College Athletic Association.
The son of immigrants, Eliasik, now 67, grew up in a household that focused solely on hard work, not academics and certainly not sports. He credits his love of football with inspiring him to enroll at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where he started as a walk-on tight end and finished as a star. He subsequently completed graduate work and started teaching and coaching at Harper.
"Football did everything for me. That's why I identify with these kids," Eliasik said. "I have a wide spectrum of kids. ... For some, football is their saving grace."
What he means is that the instruction, direction and supervision some of his players receive while playing football keep them busy and help them avoid making life-destroying mistakes.
Macklin and Eliasik fit together like a hand and glove.
Macklin said "Coach Ely is my favorite coach ever," and Eliasik said he had a "good relationship" personally with Macklin.
As for his football ability, Eliasik said Macklin's talent was off the charts.
"He had great size and quickness. Mentally, he was tough, and he played with great confidence. Physically and mentally, I can't think of any weakness he had," Eliasik said. "We knew he was an impact player wherever we put him. He was a dominant player at any position."
John Spiwak, now Harper's athletic director but then the team's athletic trainer, backs up Eliasik's assessment. He said Macklin proved "without doubt" to be as good as advertised.
"He was a hard-hitting, fast kid," Spiwak said. "I knew him as a competitor. When he played, he played hard."
During Macklin's time at Harper, he crossed paths with the Illini's Lewis. On a recruiting trip, Lewis stopped by Harper to say hello to the coaches and ran into Macklin. Lewis said Macklin complained to him that his experience at the prep school was not as promised, and Lewis said he told Macklin that he had never told Macklin that it would be anything other than hard work.
"He seemed resentful. At the same time, he was respectful," Lewis said. "It was a very short conversation."
Macklin enjoyed a great year with the Harper College Hawks. The team went 7-3 and was invited to play in the Cannon Empire State Bowl in New York. Macklin was named the defensive Player of the Year in his junior college region and an NJCAA All-American.
Spiwak said Macklin would have attracted major college interest if he duplicated his freshman performance in his sophomore season. Eliasik was thinking even bigger than that.
"If he'd played with us for two years, he probably could have hopped into the NFL," he said.
Eliasik said Macklin was a solid citizen. He recalled that when the team held its end-of- season banquet Macklin asked if he could make a brief address. Eliasik didn't have any idea what Macklin wanted to say and was pleased to watch his star player thank his teammates for all their contributions to a wonderful season.
"He wanted to stand up before his teammates and thank them all. He was very appreciative of having that experience," Eliasik said. "I think that showed what kind of character he had as a teammate and a football player."
Given the gratitude he expressed toward his teammates, it's ironic that Macklin's biggest problem at Harper involved a teammate.
During the spring semester after the fall football season, Macklin was involved in an off-the-field and one-sided fight with the team's kicker.
Memories are fuzzy about the details. Neither Spiwak nor Eliasik could remember if Macklin punched or choked the kicker. But when the fight was over, the kicker was unconscious, and Macklin was in big trouble.
Looking back, Macklin jokes about it.
"It was the kicker. They don't count," he said.
But criminal charges were filed, and Macklin was convicted and sentenced to probation.
"It was the first time I ever got in trouble," he said.
Equally as damaging as the conviction, Macklin recalled, was that "I had to leave school." Athletic director Spiwak said violent incidents on campus are taken seriously by the administration and that Macklin had to go. But Eliasik felt it was a major mistake to throw Macklin out of school because "I lost my chance to guide him." He calls it "one of the greatest disappointments I've ever been around."
"He could have practiced but not played," Eliasik said. "Once they threw him out, the streets got him."
Actually, Macklin did get another chance – just not at Harper.
He enrolled at Joliet Community College, where he played football. But Macklin's life was about to take a major turn for the worse.
Whether it was bad company or bad character, Macklin was headed for real trouble. He and two teammates were arrested in connection with an armed robbery in October 2002 at a Will County gas station. No coach could bail him out of a Class X felony.
Macklin's mother has no explanation for her son's involvement in the armed robbery, just recalling that "things spiraled downhill."
"In the beginning, it could have been hanging around the wrong people," she said. "I don't know what the problem was."
Macklin says now that he was not a participant in the robbery, that "they had me for being in the car." But he ultimately pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years, six months in prison. He was headed for a new life behind bars, one for which he was not prepared.
"You've got gang bangers. You've got homosexuals. You've got a completely different mix of people," Macklin said. "It's an experience you really don't forget."
Macklin described prison life as "stressful" but said he tried to make the best of it. He said he enrolled in a drug education class because he consumed alcohol. He said he studied religion and became devoted to a form of Islam. After three years, Macklin was released, vowing to family members he would never return.
"I told my relatives, 'You'll probably bury me before I go back to prison,' " he said.
The man who walked out of prison doors was not the same man who went in, but he still wanted to play football.
Paroled in July 2005, he returned to Harper and asked Eliasik if he could join the team.
"I thought whatever he did that he had paid his debt," the coach said. "He was there from the beginning of the season."
But not for long.
"He got hurt, and that was it," Eliasik said.
Macklin's mother recalls her son sustained a serious knee injury in which his anterior cruciate ligament was torn. Surgery would be required.
"It wasn't the end, but my career was on the fryer," Macklin said.
It turned out that his first stint in prison cost Macklin far more than his liberty. By the time he left prison he was damaged goods, one good hit away from the end of his football dreams.
"He confided in me later. He said, 'Coach, I really hurt (my knee) in prison," Eliasik said. "He came with a damaged knee. It was weak."
Another armed robbery
About 10:45 p.m. on Aug. 16, 2006, Thomas Crowley, an off-duty Skokie Police sergeant, walked into a White Hen Pantry in the Chicago suburb of Addison to get a cup of coffee.
He noticed a young man hanging around an outside pay phone but didn't pay him much attention.
"(An armed robbery) was the last thing I was expecting," Crowley said.
As the clerk prepared to make Crowley a fresh cup of coffee, two black men wearing masks – one carrying a handgun and the other a brick – burst in and demanded cash.
"These kids were real nervous," Crowley said. "One guy kept me covered with a gun, and the other took the clerk to go up to the front of the store."
Crowley said he was willing to cooperate, but the store clerk wasn't.
"I was afraid they were going to start shooting," he said. "They were really agitated, and they were really getting belligerent with the clerk."
After striking the clerk in the face with a brick, the pair grabbed $200, leaving another $800 behind. Then, they fled. The entire incident took 45 seconds.
Less than two weeks later, about 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 28 at a different White Hen Pantry in Addison, there was another armed robbery. Two young black men, one armed with a gun, charged in, struck the clerk, grabbed about $200 and fled. But the clerk had spotted the robbers on their way into the store and hit the panic button, summoning police.
Minutes later, police spotted two suspects, 15-year-old Freddie Evans and 19-year-old William Chenault and stopped them. Police found a handgun near Chenault and cash stuffed in their pockets. Both gave complete confessions to police and told similar stories.
"You guys caught me. You know I did it. But I didn't want to," Chenault told investigators.
Evans told police he had participated in both armed robberies, one with Chenault and another with 15-year-old Jontel Smith. All three said it was part of an initiation into the Black P. Stones gang, and that a gang member named "Big Mo" provided the handgun and told them where to go and what to do. He also took most of the proceeds of the successful armed robbery.
Who was "Big Mo?" Police later identified him as one-time football star and longtime gang member Macklin.
He adamantly denies the allegation and said he now is serving a prison sentence "for a robbery I didn't do."
"I wasn't even around when it happened," Macklin said.
His mother supports him.
"He didn't have anything to do with that. I don't think he sent them in to do anything," she said.
But authorities built a compelling case against Macklin. In separate interviews with the police, each of the three teens told similar stories.
Further, Macklin's girlfriend, who admitted to being present with two teens and Macklin before one robbery, described how he stopped the car and opened the trunk so the robbers could collect the gear they used. And Macklin made incriminating statements to police, admitting to being with the youths before the second armed robbery but denying putting them up to it.
Although police reports obtained by The News-Gazette under the state's Freedom of Information Act contain a copy of Macklin's written waiver of his constitutional right to remain silent, he also claims that authorities attributed statements to him that he did not make.
"I would never give a statement to police," he said.
All three robbers pleaded guilty to armed robbery and were sentenced to prison – Evans and Smith for six years and Chenault 15. As a condition of their guilty pleas, they each agreed to testify against Macklin.
Last December, Macklin was convicted of armed robbery in a bench trial before Associate Judge Mark Dwyer, who ordered Macklin to serve 24 years in prison. He said he turned down an offer to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of 15 years because he is innocent.
"It's always depressing (to be in prison), especially when you know you're innocent," Macklin said.
Authorities, however, are confident Macklin was properly convicted.
"He is a bad guy," one prosecutor said.
DuPage County State's Attorney Joseph Birkett described Macklin's crime as serious and said it required a long sentence.
"He had others point the gun for him," Birkett told reporters after Macklin's sentencing hearing.
Back behind bars
Despite his dreary circumstances and uncertain future, Macklin said he tries to maintain a good attitude.
"I haven't lost my passion. It's for life. It's definitely for God. It's to stay as positive as possible," he said.
During a recent talk with a visitor, Macklin was relentlessly upbeat, talking about football and his case, expressing hope for the future and contrition about the past.
"I'm still alive. Every day I wake up is a blessing," he said.
He also expressed confidence that he will be released soon.
"There's no reason why I shouldn't be home in the next year," Macklin said. "I'm pretty positive about this appeal."
It's unclear to what appeal Macklin refers. The DuPage County Circuit Clerk's office said no notice of appeal of Macklin's conviction is on file and that the case is officially closed. The state's attorney's office released a copy of the case file based on that declaration.
Mackin's lawyer, Kevin Kent, was unavailable to comment, and Macklin's mother declined to discuss her son's legal strategy.
So for the foreseeable future, Macklin will remain behind bars. He works the overnight shift in the prison kitchen, jogs and plays basketball in the prison yard and listens to radio and television in his cell. He's strong and athletic.
"I can do 100 straight pushups," he said.
Still, Macklin knows he's wasting his life behind bars. He said he agreed to discuss his checkered past because "somebody could benefit from it."
"I was signing autographs in high school," he said. "It's a definite fall from grace. ... But what can you really do about it."
His mother is similarly distressed.
"I pray that things will work out. ... It's a waste of a human life," she said.
How did it come to this?
Johnson said she doesn't know.
"My son is an adult. I raised him the right way. He went to church," she said. "Any errors that were made were not on my part. I tell him, 'You're a grown man. You've got to make decisions for himself.' "
Sound explanations are hard to come by. But those who know of Macklin and his potential are sorely disappointed at how things turned out.
"I had a lot of high hopes for Phil," Lewis said. "He was a great kid. It makes me sick to my stomach to think that he's in prison."
As he discussed Macklin's situation, Eliasik became choked with tears.
"As I'm talking to you right now, it's emotional. He had so much. He could have been a leader to kids, a positive influence," Eliasik said.
The now-retired coach likened his own circumstances as a young man to Macklin's. He said he was indifferent to academics and unclear about his future. But Eliasik said his love of football convinced him to return to school, a move that created opportunities he never imagined. He said he caught the last car on the last train out of town, but that Macklin wasn't as fortunate.
"(Phil) didn't catch the caboose," Eliasik said.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey<@>news-gazette.com or at 217-351-5369.