In Memoriam: Lunnell Britton

On Tuesday, a 39-year-old African-American male was killed in Bastrop, Louisiana, according to local police and media reports. Shot in a friend’s driveway. One of those things, right? The sort of tragedy that leads the evening news, but in the end you’ve heard it thousands of times before, and no one seems particularly moved to do anything about it unless it fits into some political slogan or another, and even then it gets lost anyway.

But I knew Lunnell Britton, and so did hundreds of other people who grew up in his unlikely hometown of Skokie, Illinois, a notably Jewish neighborhood that borders Chicago’s north side. Lunnell played football for Niles North High School, and until Rashard Mendenhall (now of the Arizona Cardinals) came along at sister school Niles West, he was the most accomplished running back ever to churn the frosty suburban turf. 

Before Lunnell, the Niles North Vikings had been the basement-dwellers of the Central Suburban League. The school produced geeks and entrepreneurs in abundance but few precious few athletes of note. And then Lunnell came along, behind an offensive line of the biggest Greek guys Chicago has ever produced, taking handoffs from the dashing Steve Saranecki (who also died suddenly, a few years ago, from a heart problem).

Lunnell shredded opposing defenses. In the 1992 homecoming game, if memory serves, he rushed for some 272 yards. Suddenly a team that had been mocked for years was feared by its rivals. The team clinched the conference title before a screaming crowd at Maine West (near O’hare) and went on to compete in the state playoffs. Lunnell won all-conference honors easily. His picture still graces the school’s sports wall of fame.

Having a winning team enlivens any school. But Lunnell did more for the school than that. Though he was a star, he would talk to anyone, younger or older, from any background. He became a symbol of a school that was not only achieving academic excellence but also becoming one of the most diverse in America. Students spoke over 60 native languages at home. The basketball team, years later, was dubbed “Team UN.”

I connected with Lunnell years later, on Facebook. Our lives had taken very different paths. We had different political opinions, which he never took personally. He was just happy to be in touch. After his passing, some of the Facebook messages from friends suggested a familiarity with this kind of death. That saddens me even more. But the circle of mourning is nationwide, in perhaps the unlikeliest places, for a son of Skokie.