Chicago's sports family watches 'Don'

PARK RIDGE, Ill. -- The kitchen table at Michael Lenti's luxurious suburban home is filled with cheese and crackers, sausage and shrimp, bread and drinks. By halftime of Super Bowl XXXIX, huge vats of lasagna, sausage, garlic bread, pasta and salads will cover granite countertops.

"If you come here at Christmas, you'll get prime rib and lobster," says Frank Lenti, head football coach at Chicago's Mount Carmel High School.

Frank sits at the opposite end from his brother David on a brown leather couch with a nephew in the middle. Everyone's wearing jeans and the two coaches have their white sock-clad feet on the large round table in the room's center. They have gathered with relatives, friends, spouses and children to watch one of their former players.

Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. Mount Carmel Class of 1994. In the Super Bowl.

"We have two rules here, people," announces David. "If you're rooting for the Patriots, you can go downstairs in the basement. And if you don't have anything nice to say about Donovan, don't say anything at all."

The Lentis are Chicago's first family of sport. Born and raised on the South Side, the second-generation Italian-American family includes Frank, 53, and David, 43, sister Jeannie Lenti Ponsetto, 48, Director of Athletics at DePaul University; brother Eugene, 47, DePaul's head softball coach, and Michael, 46, who played pro baseball for four years and is now DePaul's director of facilities. Oldest sister Marilyn, 52, is a grammar school teacher and nearly everyone's spouse played one or more sports in college.

But Sunday is McNabb's day and the Lentis are celebrating. A photo from the quarterback's June 2003 wedding sits above the big-screen television. A smiling McNabb poses with his three head coaches: Frank, former Syracuse University coach Paul Pasqualoni and the Eagles' Andy Reid.

Despite having several players in the NFL (Simeon Rice, Matt Cushing, Steve Edwards and Darrell Hill join McNabb as current players who graduated from Mount Carmel), Frank isn't a fan of the NFL.

"I don't like the way a lot of pro football players act," he says. "I have a problem with a guy who's a millionaire who says 'I'm not a role model.' To me, that's a copout."

Despite his feelings for the NFL, the Chicago coach follows his hometown Bears and keeps track of his Mount Carmel alums. On this day, that means turning on the television and watching McNabb.

"That's not good, that's not a good start. Hang on to the ball, Don," says David, as McNabb loses the ball early in the first quarter. Two minutes later the coaches quietly utter an expletive in unison as the Eagles suffer another turnover. Seven nieces and nephews scream in the basement and occasionally wander upstairs.

Their brother Eugene comes into the room, back from a softball team road trip; he kisses his siblings and in-laws hello. Frank's daughter Lauren, who will play softball for Eugene next year at DePaul, sits on the floor leaning against her dad's legs to watch the game.

The Lentis may be serious coaches, but they come from a very snuggly family. They still hang out with childhood friends. They spend all their holidays together. And if you like sports, the Lentis have the best conversations of any family get-together.

"(Expletive), Don!" yells David, after McNabb's third interception of the game.

Frank and David love Donovan. "When we first saw Donovan (as a high school freshman in 1990) you knew he was something special," recalls David. "He's very charismatic, an outstanding young man. So much character, so much class."

With Chicago accents chattering back and forth -- imagine a less-pronounced version of actor Dennis Franz -- the first half winds down and Frank and David fill their plates with food. "He was reading Don's eyes the whole way," says Frank after one interception. "Right Katie-kate?" Frank hugs one of Eugene's kids.

For years, people have tried coaxing Lenti away from Chicago. And for a while back in 1989, he considered working for Lou Holtz at Notre Dame. But Lenti won't leave Chicago. None of the six Lenti brothers and sisters will leave this city. "We all like being around one another," Frank says.

For 21 years, Lenti, along with David, who's Mount Carmel's defensive coordinator, have built one of the best high school football programs in the nation. Under Lenti stewardship, the all-boys Catholic high school on Chicago's South Side has won nine state championships and compiled a 237-40 record. This at a place where a young man's education and character are of primary importance.

"I've been preaching this since I started as head coach," says Frank Lenti, 53. "Be a good person, be a good student, and be a good athlete. And if you're not number one and two, you won't get a chance to be number three."

The second half begins and Frank and David take their spots, with their father, Frank Sr., a retired cement truck driver, sitting between them. "Now we've got to respond," says Frank after the Patriots score early. "Like I said, the first five minutes of the half will set the tempo." After a Tabasco sauce commercial, big sister Marilyn and her sister-in-law Kelly say they don't get what the bikini clad woman and Tabasco have to do with each other. "She's hot," explains Marilyn's husband Kevin, Frank's best friend since grammar school. "Now do you guys get it?"

McNabb is sacked again. "Don's not getting a chance to set up," says Frank. "Come here Jake," says David to one of his sons. "Bring us some luck. Where's your rally hat?"

Things look up as the Eagles tie the game at 14. "Stay close and try to win it at the end," says Frank to the TV. There's lots of chatting on the other couch, but New England's third touchdown quiets the room and things feel glum with 12:40 left in the game. The Eagles' Jevon Kearse is on the ground. "That's the only thing he's done all day," notes Frank. "Has he done anything, Dave?" No, responds Dave. A few minutes later, the commentators note that Kearse has done very little all day.

David calls for son Jake again. "We need your rally hat. We're going down, dude." With the Patriots about to score, Frank calls for another nephew, Peter, to sit on his lap. Frank hugs Peter as the Patriots go ahead 24-14. "What do we think Pete? We need a rally? We need a score?"

"Well, you can say one thing," says Frank Sr. "They got there." Son Frank replies: "But when you get there you don't want to just say 'I got there.'" Things look up briefly as the Eagles score and the game's 24-21. "Not over yet chief," says David.

As the clock ticks down, five kids loll in front of the television, quietly sucking lollipops and playing with glowsticks.

McNabb is intercepted again. "Party's over," says Eugene, who's been flipping through Discover Magazine. With a little more than a minute to go, Jeannie comes through the front door, fresh from a trip to St. Louis. She kisses everyone in the room. The Eagles are about to lose Super Bowl XXXIX.

"Good effort, good effort," concludes David. "I think it's a great stepping stone for the Eagles. It took them four tries to win the NFC championship. Now they have a taste of the Super Bowl and they'll be better prepared next year."

Frank's extremely disappointed. He'll give McNabb a call in the next week or two and see how he's doing.

"Just to let him know we still love him. I feel bad for him, but the sun will come up tomorrow."

Anne E. Stein is a writer in Chicago.