By Justin Birnbaum
Gunshots sometimes wake Awudu “Dee” Habib in the middle of the night. They can sound as if they’re going off in the bedroom of his fifth-floor apartment. On nights like that, Habib takes cover beneath his bed.
Growing up in Uptown, on the North Side of Chicago, Habib is no stranger to violence. The lure of gang activity lurks outside his door. He’s watched countless friends pulled into that life. People close to Habib have spent time behind bars as a result of gang-related shootings. But Habib has found refuge in the halls of Lincoln Park High School and as a star on the football team under head coach Vincent DeFrancesco.
“Having friends in my neighborhood that I ended up coming to school with here helped us stay away from [gang activity],” Habib said. “Having a good coach like Coach D, having people like that, just helps us so much.”
Finding success as an athlete has been an uphill climb for Habib. Entering high school, he was barely five feet tall. Still, Habib dressed for varsity games his freshman year and received playing time during his sophomore season. By the time he was a junior, he was a key part of Lincoln Park’s conference championship team.
Now a 5-foot-8, 165-pound senior, Habib has made his most significant contribution this season through the passion, intensity, and tenacity that he brings every game. After a crushing defeat against Kenmore in the second week of the season, Habib gathered his team and demanded a film session the following Monday. During their week five matchup with Lane Tech, Habib was injured and unable to play, but constantly shuttled around the sideline, coaching his teammates and doing his best to motivate. One week later against Taft, Lincoln Park’s starting quarterback went down with a broken collarbone and Habib stepped up to learn an entirely new position–quarterback–just to give his team the best chance to win the following game.
“I know on Friday night, there’s a guy that wants to win more than anyone on the field, and that’s Dee,” DeFrancesco said. “And that’s the kid I want to put our season on with our backs against the wall needing to win out. He’s going to welcome that moment. He’s going to play really well in that.”
Jeremiah Rials, a junior running back at Lincoln Park, grew up in the same neighborhood as Habib and has known him since childhood. “I’ve always looked up to him as a player and a role model on the field,” Rials said. “I always knew him as a great athlete and like a big brother to me.”
The quarterback change effectively saved Lincoln Park’s season. With Habib under center, the Lions ran the ball more, committed fewer turnovers and controlled the clock more effectively. This allowed DeFrancesco’s team to rattle off three consecutive victories to bring their regular season record to 5-4. Lincoln Park qualified for both the state and city playoffs but was eliminated from each in consecutive weeks.
According to Coach DeFrancesco, Habib’s performance at quarterback “provided a huge spark needed” to secure Lincoln Park’s fifth consecutive IHSA state playoff berth. He received all-city and all-conference honors for his performance this season.
“Being named to the all-conference team is okay,” Habib said. “I’m working for bigger things.”
Many kids grow up dreaming about playing in the NFL. Habib just wants to play Division I college ball, though with his size he knows even that is a long shot, no matter his production. As of now, Habib has only received interest from Division III schools such as the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
“Dee’s issue is one that he’s not able to control, and that’s how tall he is,” DeFrancesco said. “Dee has played great against really good competition and kids that are going and pursuing college football and getting scholarships and a lot of that has to do with their height. Dee’s athletic ability is as good as anyone.”
Habib wants to play at the next level to make his family proud and save his parents the burden of paying for an expensive college education. As someone who got his start in a community sports program, Habib aspires to study sports management in college with the goal of developing youth programs to educate kids on the fundamentals of sports. “If I don’t get a D1 offer, I’m still going to go to college because I need that degree,” Habib said. “I want to be the first in my family to graduate college. Football comes and goes and sometimes you have to hang the cleats up.”
Since his freshman year Habib has consistently improved in the classroom, a product of his diligent work ethic. As for the college coaches who doubt his abilities, Habib is confident his talent, heart and work ethic will lead to success. “Step in front of me and prove me wrong,” Habib said. “Just give me a chance. Look at me and see what I can do.”