Oak Park-River Forest High School has sat on Scoville Avenue between Lake and Erie Streets just outside Chicago for 150 years. Colts cornerback Dallis Flowers will, on Friday, become only the second football player to have his jersey retired in the school history.
For OPRF head football coach John Hoerster, honoring Flowers by retiring his No. 21 jersey was a no-brainer.
When Flowers arrived at OPRF, the school's boys' athletics leaned more toward basketball and baseball. The baseball team perennially made the state playoffs; the basketball team had just retired the No. 32 jersey of Iman Shumpert, the former first-round pick and defensive ace who spent a decade in the NBA and won a title with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The football team, meanwhile, hadn't won a state playoff game since 1992 and had qualified for the IHSA playoffs three times in the previous decade, losing those games by a combined score of 120-35. It wasn't that playing football wasn't cool – of course it was – but Hoerster said the program didn't always attract the best athletes among the 3,000-plus students walking OPRF's halls.
(Author's note: I graduated from Oak Park-River Forest High School in 2007.)
Flowers' first love was basketball, but he loved football, too. So he played both.
"The amount of athletes we have walking our hallways that are basketball players and baseball players who would really, really help the football team, but they focus (on their one sport)," Hoerster said. "But then you get a guy like Dallis, who everyone knew to be an amazing basketball player. He plays football all of a sudden, now basketball guys are like oh, well if Dallis is doing it, then it must be all right if I do it.
"... When you have guys who are tipping point people like Dallis, it just tremendously helps the program. I can beg kids all I want to play football, but when Dallis does it, it carries a different cachet."
With Flowers helping lead the way, OPRF football started winning. The Huskies didn't just qualify for the state playoffs; they won playoff games for the first time in two decades. And the culture of the program changed. Like Flowers, some of OPRF's best athletes started putting on helmets and shoulder pads.
"He was also charismatic that in terms of football culture — the team, the locker room, the bus rides — it was so great to have a guy like that around because he always brought so much energy and he always brought a smile and he always brought a laugh," Hoerster said. "He was just a great guy to have on the team for a zillion different reasons."
One of those zillion reasons, as you'd expect for a guy who would later make the NFL, was Flowers' talent. He played wide receiver and cornerback, and returned punts and kicks – anything to get the ball in his hands.
Hoerster, at one point, devised a trick play for a punt return. Flowers would line up on one side of the field, while Kamal Bey – a tremendous athlete who's gone on to win gold medals in Greco-Roman wrestling – was on the other. Whoever received the punt would throw the ball back to the other.
When it came time for a punt return, though, Hoerster opted against calling the trick play – only Bey and Flowers still ran it. Bey caught the punt, ripped the ball across the field and Flowers took off for a 60-yard touchdown.
"It's rare as a coach when you have a kid where any time they touch the ball, there is a significant chance of them doing something special and scoring," Hoerster said. "Football is really hard to do that. But he was one of those guys where, when you get the ball in his hands, he does some amazing things."
Flowers, in the years since graduating from OPRF, hasn't forgot the impact his time in high school had on him. Last year, while with the Colts, Flowers came back for a game. He stood on the sidelines and talked to the team after, imprinting words of wisdom on a group of players that used to be him – and, for some of them, aspire to be him.
"He's someone who's an NFL player who's actually excited about coming back to a school and proud of the school he went to and humbled his jersey's being retired," Hoerster said. "This is an NFL player getting excited about a high school jersey. That says something about Dallis appreciating where he came from and being grateful for his roots."
From Friday evening on, no player will be able to wear No. 21 for the OPRF football team. When they ask why, they'll learn: It's because of the impact Dallis Flowers made on the program, both as a player and a person.
"It's going to be a surreal moment," Flowers said. "Coming into high school I wasn't even thinking about getting my jersey retired. I was just young trying to play basketball and football. Now tomorrow, that 21 is getting retired. It's a legacy. My last name, Flowers, is going to be held forever. Nobody can wear it. I'm really blessed. It shows the hard work and dedication I gave to the school, to myself and to my family."