North Lawndale College Prep football team bonds before state playoffs with pre-game lock-in

The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) state football playoffs kicked off Friday with first-round games scheduled through Saturday. On the city’s West Side, one high school is taking a unique approach to team-building by ensuring their players are ‘locked-in’ — on and off the field.

To help quell pre-game jitters, the North Lawndale College Prep football team will spend the night in their high school gym. No phones are allowed – and therefore, they’ll have a break from outside noise.

"Just us, because it’s going to be just us on the field," said Head Football Coach Samuel Williford, North Lawndale College Prep High School.

It's a team tradition before big games – one that inspires both the coaching staff and the players. It is also a chance to build on the brotherhood they share.

With a record of 8-1, North Lawndale’s varsity football team is ranked #3 in IHSA’s Class 3A.

"I’m actually nervous, but I’m ready," said Earnest Rice, senior student-athlete and quarterback, North Lawndale College Prep High School.

For the players, getting ready means getting into the right mindset.

Lock-ins have been part of Coach Williford’s playbook for years. Students report to the gym following dismissal, where they turn in their cellphones and spend time together.

"At first, it was very hard, because you know, I love TikTok," said Rice.

However, just as simple as it is to scroll, players find ease in time spent together.

"We start telling stories, we talk about our life, we bond, we play tag, we play games," said Darreyon Bryant, senior student-athlete and linebacker/fullback, North Lawndale College Prep High School.

Activities on Friday night included a game that stands the test of time: duck, duck, goose.

"So you’re just connecting with your teammates without a phone, without your cellular device," said Rice.

It's also an opportunity to keep students safe.

Last October, Rishawn Hendricks, who was a junior on the team, was tragically shot and killed in the neighborhood.

"It hits home real hard, knowing a kid I had since freshman year, and knowing that he’s not that type of kid, it hurts even more," said Williford.

During the lock-in, Coach Williford gives players a space to share their own experiences, stories and feelings.

"Just basically creating a brotherhood," said Rice.

"I feel like when we talk, it helps with trust so if I can trust you in here, I can trust you on the field. The more trust, the more of a brother you become," said Bryant.

A bond formed between teammates – in uniform and out.

"We call it brotherhood, in a sense of, it doesn’t necessarily have to be your blood, but it can be a total stranger, a friend that could be in a need of help, not today but 10 years from now. We’re hoping they build that," said Williford.

The lock-in is something Williford says he learned from one of his mentors, Coach D’Angelo Dereef, when he coached at Al Raby High School.

"Because of what we did at Al Raby, most of the kids are still together to this day – they still hang out with each other, they go out with each other. That’s all we ask, keep that little bond with some positive people, and try not to go the other way. That’s the whole reason for the lock-in," said Williford.

Williford said he wants to see a full house at Lane Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 28 when North Lawndale College Prep takes on Prairie Central High School out of Fairbury, Illinois.

Kickoff is at noon and tickets can be purchased at the gate. Lane Stadium is located at 2601 West Addison Street.

Find the IHSA’s Class 3A football bracket by clicking HERE.