GARY | The wheels rolled slowly down 25th Avenue in Gary. It was 2 a.m. The turn signal blinked toward Roosevelt High School. Jeff Karras pulled his car into the parking lot.
Shoots of green life grew up through some broken concrete surrounding the Panthers' football field. With his dog Rudy at his side, the combustible Karras prayed.
"I asked God if I should take the Roosevelt job," Karras said of his drive to the 'Velt early on Aug. 1. "And I'm not kidding. I got chills all over my body, on the back of my neck. I knew I was supposed to take the job. God wanted me to be Roosevelt's head coach."
When Karras was officially named as Eric Yarbrough's replacement, he became the first white head coach in Roosevelt's history.
"I'm color blind," he said. "That doesn't mean anything to me."
The Karras family name is almost as big in Gary as that of the Jacksons. Eight Karrases played Big Ten football, four played in the NFL, including Ted, Jeff's father, who was on the Bears 1963 championship team.
But Jeff never played big-time college football. He spent some time this summer at his uncle Alex's home in California. The time with the NFL and television/film superstar was needed.
Karras had been fired from his assistant football coaching job at Michigan City in the spring, after he was told he failed a drug test. Karras also told The Times that, although he initially was told he failed a drug test at Michigan City, he in fact passed the test.
Michigan City Area Schools declined to confirm the test or comment on Karras’ dismissal, saying those are private personnel issues. *
Tonight, Karras' Panthers travel to Michigan City for their opener.
"They broke my contract and I left," Karras said. "There's a pending lawsuit. I love the kids and the coaches there, but we're going there to pick a fight."
Karras has always been a scrapper. Even though the Karrases lived in Miller, the brothers Tony, Ted and Jeff, went to Hobart and played for Hall of Fame coach Don Howell.
"My dad didn't like what was going on at Andrean," Jeff said. "He wanted to be the coach and they said no. So my parents separated and we got an apartment in Hobart. And we drove into Hobart from Gary most days."
He laughed when asked about the separation, which never really happened.
In Nov. of 1982, Jeff watched the Brickies play Roosevelt in a sectional classic. Eric Campbell scored two touchdowns early for the Panthers, who led at halftime. Hobart came back to win 25-12 and advanced to the state championship game.
"That was a hell of a team," Karras said of Roosevelt. "We can get back there again."
The Panthers haven't been Black and Gold on the gridiron in recent years. They've been more black and blue. 'Velt had a winning season in 1987, none since. The Panthers were 4-21 under Yarbrough and have only won one postseason game in school history.
Gary isn't the same city Karras grew up in. Tough economic times have hit all of America hard, but the inner city hardest. Karras spoke before Wednesday's practice and pointed to the nearly empty parking lot.
The same spot that was his asphalt cathedral two weeks ago.
"Not one of my players drives to practice or drives home, not one," he said. "I bet we're the only school in the state with that. I'm a coach and a taxi driver."
This isn't new. Despite taking Andrean to the 2001 state championship game and South Central to its first sectional title in school history in 2010, Karras is blue-collar Gary through and through.
As a sixth-grader at St. Mary of the Lake in Miller, a church deacon picked up Karras by the collar and drug him to sit with the kindergartners because of bad behavior.
"I had ADD but no one told me," Karras said.
Terms like "crazy, nuts or insane" have been used to describe Karras in the past. The Panthers figured that out in their first practice with their new coach.
"It's good we have someone from Gary," said senior JaQuan Mobley. "It's more comfortable than an outsider. He can relate to us. It's more settling. I wouldn't say he's crazy. He's really energetic. He cares. He wants us to be a good team."
It was tough for sophomore Randall Felix. At first.
"It was painful mentally," Felix said. "He's our coach. Literally, he might put his foot up someone's (backside). But that's what we need. He wants us to be good. That's what we want, too."
Born at the Methodist Hospital in Gary, Karras said his hometown is in his blood. He said he can interact with people in the Delaney Project homes across the street from Roosevelt as easily as people at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he spent a few days before returning home.
"I had lunch at Charlie's Coney Island the other day," Karras said of the nearby establishment. "It was cool. Everybody was talking to me, a lot of Roosevelt people were there. I'll keep going there unless we lose too many games."
Karras is 40-19 as a head coach at now his fourth school. Losing isn't in his DNA. But this is his biggest turnaround job ever. There were nine players at his first practice. He had 24 on Wednesday.
"He wants to win; we want to win," senior Sherman Brown said. "We've never had a coach who wanted us to do it like him. He treats us like we're his own kids."
That is what Karras wants. A family.
"I've had success; I know how to play good football," Karras said. "Do I need to temper my style a little? Yeah, probably. I have an all-star staff and they want to make this work. Everything happens for a reason. I'm here because of what happened at Michigan City.
"I love Gary. I love Gary kids."
* This part of the story was edited for clarification after the story was first published.