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  • Writer's pictureAaron Ferguson

Leadership equates to success in Peoria High's program

The general ranks on the side of Peoria High's football helmets are a part of their culture.

One side of Peoria High's football helmets feature general ranks, which is part of their leadership program. (Aaron Ferguson/Journal Star)

PEORIA — The Peoria High Lions are undefeated and have built program success on the field. Watching the Lions video game-like offense can be exciting, and their uniform that changes from year to year adds additional excitement to the program. As the uniforms change, the one constant is the general rankings on the side of their helmets.

The rankings stand for something bigger than the flashiness of the program. It’s an example of the leadership and character development that coaches Tim Thornton and Adam O’Neill have installed.

Thornton originally thought of the idea three years ago while playing a video game with his son. He was trying to rank up to the next star in a video game and the idea began developing.

“I started thinking about if I would do this for this rank up, what would (football players) do for a rank that actually could mean something, something that we could attach some pride and meaning to?” Thornton said.

The ranking system was born, and the Lions began using ranks for the Marines, but adapted them to be football-friendly, as opposed to about guns. The ranking system also serves as a rewards program: The higher the rank, the better the rewards, including being first to eat at team meals and picking jersey numbers.

“The different ranks show the dedication that everyone puts in,” senior running back and lieutenant Jaleen James said. “There’s been steppingstones put in to get people to be a better version of them.”

Players have different tasks that they have to do to earn each rank, but there is also a point system that is equipped with ranking up. Points are earned solely on off-the-field activities, such as GPA, taking the ACT, attendance at off-the-field activities, community service and more.

“It’s more about building our off-the-field person. You can’t earn points or rank by anything you do on-the-field. It’s really about the academics, commitment to community and school,” Thornton said.

Tasks involved with ranking up are more about learning quality life skills than the actual task itself. Some of the tasks include getting a letter of recommendation, which teaches players how to approach teachers and adults. A higher ranked officer must recommend a player for a higher ranking, teaching players accountability.

“It gives some kids confidence to lead. When they get to a certain level, they feel that it’s OK to demand more from someone and players have become OK with their teammates asking for more from them.”

Defensive coordinator and head assistant coach O’Neill spearheaded the newest equation to the leadership program. He’s merged ideas from Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and former Mizzou coach Dr. Pat Ivey to form an equation: E + R = O.

“E” stands for events, which is beyond someone’s control. “R” is the biggest part of the equation; it stands for the response to the events, which leads to the outcome, according to O’Neill.

“We felt our scheme and philosophy was really good, but we got into some situations where we didn’t know what to do with adversity,” O’Neill said.

This is something that started taking shape last spring while no football activities were going on, so it translated to the classroom immediately. As players began presenting it to teachers and the team this summer, it started to become the mantra of the entire school.

“We capitalize on the response because that’s the biggest factor into the outcome,” senior lineman and two-star general Kendrick Green said. “It’s all over the school; teachers are preaching it. We’re trying to change things for the better.”

The other element that the coaches teach is an effort to curb thoughts that are unimportant to the task at hand.

“Something bad happens, park it and leave it there, you’ll move on and come back to it; you’re on to the next thing,” Green said.

Peoria High’s football program isn’t just affecting the lives of the players and coaches, but also other students, teachers and community members. It just so happens the Lions are using their voice to make a difference.

“We’ve got kids that are improving in other areas of their lives, and I’m using it all the time, too. We want our kids leaving with more opportunities than they came here with,” O’Neill said.

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