The alarm tolled at 4:30 a.m. on weekday mornings, a cue for William Chrisman student James Bailey to climb out of bed, get dressed and finish his school work. Before any of his five siblings in the Kansas City home had awoken, Bailey hopped in his father’s truck, and they drove to a downtown metro bus stop.
The remainder of the trip Bailey made alone. It required him to bounce from bus to bus — three in all — before the final vehicle pulled to a halt at 7:08 a.m. The stop left him half of a mile from William Chrisman High School, his destination.
So with a backpack strapped across his shoulders, Bailey crossed over 24 Highway, sprinted up a hill, looped around the football field and entered the building. He was inside by the time the first bell rang at 7:20 a.m.
“Sometimes you have kids who come up with every excuse you can imagine for why they weren’t coming to school or why they weren’t coming to practice,” says Scorpio Horn, William Chrisman football coach and teacher. “But James, he wouldn’t miss one day, man.”
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Two years after the route to school became part of his weekly routine, Bailey has forged his own path. And the William Chrisman football program has followed his lead.
Horn refers to Bailey, his senior quarterback, as both Superman and Clark Kent — and it’s the former, he says, that has the Bears 5-0 and just one victory from their first winning season in more than three decades.
At 7 p.m. Friday, the Bears will play host to state-ranked Staley, the preseason favorite to win the Suburban White Conference title.
“When I came here, I said I wanted to change the way people think about Chrisman,” Bailey says. “That job is not done yet.”
Bailey arrived at William Chrisman as a sophomore transfer from Summit Christian Academy. His father says he could no longer afford the cost of private-school tuition, and he felt Chrisman offered his next-best option.
But that necessitated a move out of the family home for Bailey, who now lives with his 25-year-old sister in Independence. On nights in which he became homesick, Bailey found a teammate or coach to give him a ride to his parents’ house in Kansas City, where he slept over. Without a car during his sophomore and junior football seasons, he utilized the metro bus to get to school the following morning.
“You know, he never thought much of it,” said James Bailey Sr. “I never heard him complain about it. Whatever Little James puts his mind to, he does it.”
The William Chrisman football coaching staff provides its own example.
On March 15, 2015, Chrisman sophomore Mason Atagi died in an ATV wreck. He was 16. Atagi was scheduled to take over as the Bears’ starting quarterback the following season, after the coaching staff designed an offense around his skill-set.
A long grieving process slowly transformed into solving the effect on the football field. The Bears were left without a popular teammate, a leader and a quarterback.
The coaching staff pinpointed Bailey as a possible answer. His resume consisted of a few Pop Warner passes.
“I’m the type of kid that if coach puts me up for a challenge, I’m not going to back down,” Bailey said. “So of course I said yes.”
In the ensuing two seasons, Horn says Bailey has “revolutionized the program,” and the grand statement has little opposition.
In an offense that most closely resembles a traditional wing-T, Bailey is tasked with the decision-making on every play, choosing when to hand the ball off, pitch it or keep it himself. He even throws it on occasion.
In his senior season, Bailey has accounted for 16 touchdowns in five games, and he’s nearing the 1,000-yard rushing mark. He averages 9.9 yards per carry and is drawing Division I interest at the Football Championship Subdivision level.
The individual accolades have helped revive the football team. In four seasons from 2011-14, the Bears won a total of five games. In 2015, Bailey’s first year as a starting quarterback, they won four. In 2016, they have five victories in five weeks.
“The secret is out. Everybody knows we got a guy, and everybody is out to stop that guy,” Horn says. “They load the box. It’s nine guys in the box every single snap. And he still finds a way. You can’t explain it. You just have to come out and see it.”