The journey from troublemaker to teacher

From the editor

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BRAD SPENCER

As athletes, they helped build the success of OPRF High School's sports programs. Now, as coaches, they are continuing the progress. This is the second column in a series that will profile current OPRF head coaches who once starred as athletes at the school.

ike Powell was a punk, a no-good, trouble-making, prickly, pompous punk who cared more about getting girls' phone numbers than about getting an education. And he'll be the first to tell you, "I was a bad kid."

He was also an athlete, and a good one.

Powell's rude, crude, lewd and boneheaded exploits caught up to him in 1993, his junior year at OPRF High School. Expected to win a State wrestling championship at 171 pounds that year, Powell was academically ineligible to compete. He was in the gutter, headed straight down the storm drain. "It was a real low point in my life," he says after a deep sigh. But someone was always there to pick him up.

"There's no question that I would have been booted out of school had I not had certain people standing up for me," says a very appreciative Powell, who became keenly aware of the sacrifice coaches were willing to make for this troubled kid. The efforts of men like former OPRF coaches Nial Collins, Tom Graziano, Norm Parker, and Larry Montagano, were so inspiring they came to shape Powell's future.

In short order, he turned his life around. The very next year he defeated Chatham's Ryan Root to win a State wrestling championship. He received a scholarship to Indiana University, returned to OPRF after graduating and became a teacher's aid and assistant wrestling coach.

What do you think he did the first day he came back to the school he was nearly kicked out of? No, it wasn't checking out his old locker.

"I ran around to all the teachers that I made trouble with and apologized," says Powell. "I was an idiot in my youth and too dumb to realize it until later on."

Powell, now in the midst of his second year as head coach of OPRF's wrestling program, is trying to show other at-risk kids how to get back on track. He received his master's in learning disability and behavior disorders and is currently a special education teacher at OPRF. Powell teaches kids with behavior challenges, and who would know more about behavior challenges than this former punk.

"I'm a teacher and a coach now because of what my coaches did for me back then," says Powell. "No one could stand me but them. They knew I was intelligent, and they stuck with me."

He teaches every subject imaginable, even topics not in the curriculum?#34;you know the ones about responsibility and being accountable for your actions.

Powell's goal is to get each student in his classroom back into the mainstream with a new sense of respect, for themselves and for everyone else.

"Most are smart and very capable kids, but something in their background has pushed them into my class," says Powell. "Some days are tolling and trying, but it's great to see these kids learn how to be responsible for their actions."

Powell, 29, who lives with his girlfriend Elizabeth Hess, also an OPRF grad and former tennis State qualifier, is in command of a burgeoning wrestling program making its way back from being mediocre. The Huskies downed cross-town rival Fenwick 36-26 two weeks ago, and are a favorite to win the upcoming Oak Park Regional.

"I never thought I'd come back to Oak Park but I absolutely love it here now," says the former punk.

CONTACT: bspencer@wjinc.com

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