CHICAGO – Commitment. Family.
Two important words to Steven Filer. Two words that drive his life.
Each morning to get to Chicago Mount Carmel, Filer has to board a train from his Dolton home. It's a sign of his commitment to academics.
Tuition at Mount Carmel runs $7,000 a year. For a kid to go to the all-boys school of about 900, it takes a commitment from a family. It might mean skipping a vacation or putting off the new car purchase. But it sends a message about values.
Long ago, Filer made a commitment to football. He made a commitment to try to be the best. It's working.
Filer breaks a long streak of running backs and quarterbacks to be named News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year. For the first time since 1989, a linebacker wins the honor. The last one, Romeoville's Oliver Gibson, had a long, successful NFL career.
Filer is considered the top recruit in the state and is among the nation's top 100 players. He had scholarship offers from almost every major school in the country. Ultimately, family considerations helped him pick Notre Dame.
The school is about 80 miles from Filer's home. If he can avoid the usual traffic headaches, it will take him a little more than an hour to zip home in the fall. And he wants to have that option.
Being close became a big deal to Filer earlier in the year when his mom, Debria, had a health scare. She's fine now, on the road to recovery. But the illness let Filer know he needed to pick a school nearby.
"It made me think about 'What would I do if I was five or six hours away?' " Filer said.
Frank Lenti has coached plenty of great players at Mount Carmel. Simeon Rice played at the school. So did Donovan McNabb. And a host of others who went on to successful college careers.
Filer is on Lenti's short list of great players. But the coach values him even more off the field.
"To me, as good a football player as Steven Filer is, he's a better person," Lenti said. "Eighty percent of the time, he's got a smile on his face. The other 20 percent would probably be when he's on the field or taking a test in school.
"He comes into our office. Sue (Doheny), my assistant, loves having him around. Any time you ask Steven to do anything, he's always willing and happy to jump in there. I'm hoping that's one thing that won't change when he goes to college. There are so many prima donna athletes in college. So many guys who think the world owes them something."
Football is a big deal at Mount Carmel. There are state title trophies everywhere. It takes a rare player, like Filer or McNabb, to break into the lineup as a sophomore.
"As a freshman football player here, he was really just operating on instinct," Lenti said. "He was just a good athlete running around. Sophomore year, we had to get him to understand that there's a system you have to be a part of."
Filer understands the Mount Carmel way.
"The coaches always put me in a good position," he said. "I never try to be the star."
Lenti said Filer has developed his work ethic and leadership skills at Mount Carmel. The players voted him the No. 2 captain.
"The kids respect Steven," Lenti said. "They respect what he has done. We've had other guys here over the years, who were all-state players, and were never voted captains because the kids didn't respect their work ethic."
There have been a few "wow" moments while watching Filer. He tracks running backs down from sideline to sideline. Touchdowns turn into 2-yard gains.
One of Filer's biggest moments came in a win against rival St. Rita. Filer figured out the play and stepped in front of a receiver for an interception. Fifty-eight yards later, Filer's touchdown sealed the victory.
Filer's personality worked well when it came to recruiting. He got it over with early, giving Notre Dame a call in July.
"In the beginning, I enjoyed it a lot because I got a lot of attention," Filer said. "But I wasn't really a big attention-type guy.
"Then, it started to get on my nerves a little bit. The coaches kept calling. The coaches kept texting. They were texting me when I was in class."
Filer listened to the advice of his mom and dad, Steve.
"He took everything in," Steve Filer said about his son.
The family is excited about Steven Filer's college choice.
"It's a blessing," his dad said. "He's going to a great college. It's close to home. He's going to get a good education. And not only that, they are going to be good two years from now."
There is a bit of Notre Dame history in the family. Steve Filer's cousin is Jerome Heavens, a former star running back with the Irish. The elder Filer said Heavens didn't talk his son into picking the school.
Lenti, father of Illini receiver Frank Jr., made some gentle nudges toward Illinois. He pointed out the academic options in C-U for Filer, who wants to study engineering.
There's a misconception that Lenti has loaded the Notre Dame roster through the years. In fact, Filer is the second player to go to Notre Dame in Lenti's 24 years.
There is little chance for schools to continue recruiting Filer. He has made himself unavailable, changing his cell phone and his home number. Newspaper and Internet reporters don't have access, either.
"Really, no reporters have my number," Filer said.
Notre Dame is at the end of the worst year in school history. The Irish are 2-9 going into Saturday's game at Stanford. No team at the school has ever lost so many games.
Filer is part of a recruiting class currently ranked No. 1 by rivals.com. The temptation for the Irish coaches will be to get many of those players on the field immediately. Including Filer.
But Lenti wants Notre Dame to exercise patience with the linebacker.
"I'm hoping he doesn't play a year from now," Lenti said. "Who knows? The state of their football program right now ... Everybody has the allure with these kids, 'Come in, you'll play right away. A couple of years, you'll go to The Show.' Only so many kids make it to the NFL. I just keep harping on our kids to stay on their academics."
Filer has done well academically at Mount Carmel, holding a 3.4 grade-point average. He had a good score on his ACT.
His parents always have stressed education.
"When I got older, they didn't have to watch over my shoulder as I did my homework," Filer said. "They expected me to do my homework, they trusted me to do my homework and take care of my grades."
Lenti trusted him, too. And most of the rest of the Caravan.
"A lot of people want to say Mount Carmel is a jock school because of our athletic reputation," Lenti said. "But as I always tell people, 'If you want to look at it as a jock school, look at our success. Dumb athletes don't win. Dumb athletes find a way to lose.' In fact, we've had a number of our players go to the University of Chicago, go to the military academies."
Lenti doesn't ever worry about the pro futures of his players. The photos on his office walls are of his guys in college.
"That's what we aspire to is to get our kids ready for college," Lenti said. "We all know that you're one bad knee, one bad ankle, one bad shoulder away from never playing again. So, you've got to make sure you do a great job with your education."