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While Mike and Gretchen Spillane have a full house with three sons and a daughter, their extended family is even bigger.
Mike Spillane is one of 11 children. Gretchen, the youngest daughter of 1953 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lattner, is one of eight siblings.
But they opened their hearts and homes for one more and now Oak Park-River Forest senior wide receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr. is just part of the family while living with the Spillanes on Clinton Avenue in Oak Park.
Cobbs, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound wide receiver for Oak Park-River Forest (5-1), and Robert Spillane, a 6-2, 218-pound running back and linebacker for Fenwick (6-0), give the household a pair of standout football players.
How Cobbs came to live with Robert Spillane’s family is partly due to family circumstances and mostly Mike and Gretchen’s willingness to maintain a busy lifestyle.
Robert Spillane, who has a scholarship offer to play football at Western Michigan, first met Cobbs in sixth grade at Brooks Middle School. The two played for different teams in the Little Huskies tackle football program and didn’t get along when they first met. Years later, the now-close friends remember nearly getting into a fight.
“I was having a bad day and he said something I didn’t hear,” Cobbs recalled.
As Little Huskies, Spillane, Ryan Smith, Jamal Baggett and Nile Sykes were part of two undefeated teams that combined to go 24-0 in two years.
Spillane always planned on joining his cousins at Fenwick after graduating from Brooks. In fact, during the 2012 season, Spillane played with four cousins, all grandsons of Fenwick and Notre Dame legend Johnny Lattner. In all, there were nine Lattner/Spillane/Smith cousins attending Fenwick in 2012-13.
This season Robert Spillane has just one cousin who still plays football for the Friars, wide receiver Ryan Smith.
While Spillane headed to Fenwick, Cobbs attended OPRF for two years. He then transferred to Montini, but never got the chance to play for the Broncos football team.
Nearly two years ago, Cobbs began sleeping over at the Spillane house. After awhile, Mike and Gretchen Spillane began asking Cobbs what was going on at home.
They learned that Cobbs’ “home” did not include his mother or his father.
“(My parents) both asked me, ‘What’s was going on (with Simmie)?’ ” Robert Spillane said. “I was biased. I wanted Simmie to stay here because he was my best friend. I told them, ‘He has to stay here now. He’s part of the family.’ ”
“We started talking more and more during sleepovers,” Cobbs said.
Cobbs’ parents divorced when he was a baby and both father Simmie Sr. and his son moved from Texas to the Chicago area to be closer to family. Simmie Cobbs Sr. died when his son was 9 years old in 2005.
Junior’s mother Melissa and his two sisters now live in Florida, but he has not seen his mom since he was 5. He still communicates with them through Facebook.
“I can’t remember it because I was so young. I have pictures of (me with my mom),” Cobbs said. “It’s tough, but at the same time I really haven’t met them.”
Cobbs moved into an Oak Park apartment near Ridgeland and Chicago avenues with his grandmother Delta Cobbs and an uncle, Raymond Nutall. But while he was attending OPRF, his grandmother faced growing financial struggles providing for Cobbs. She and Nutall moved to Forest Park, while Cobbs looked for a way to ease their responsibilities. He transferred back to OPRF from Montini.
“It was just me finding a way to help my grandmother out,” Cobbs said. “It was a way for her to not be stressed out paying for a lot of food. My uncle lived there.”
Mike and Gretchen Spillane met with Delta Cobbs.
“I was basically coming here to help them out and keep the burden off (my grandma’s) chest,” Simmie Cobbs said. “It was basically to help her out. I had the opportunity that was given to me to stay here. I talked to her about it. It seemed all right. She was nervous about it at first, but it eventually worked out.”
The Spillane household was already crowded. Robert is the oldest of four children. His sister Nora is a junior at OPRF and plays field hockey, cross country and lacrosse. Their younger brothers are Henry, 9, and Timmy, 8.
Then there are two international students from Saudi Arabia, Talal Alesaei of Jeddah and Abdul Elah Alobid of Riyadh, who are sharing an upstairs bedroom as part of a one-year program to learn English and take classes at Dominican University. Alesaei speaks limited English and the family uses Google translator to communicate.
The house also includes two dogs, Brady and Madison.
Gretchen Spillane told Cobbs: “If you’re going to live here, you’ll have to follow our rules.”
Robert and Simmie get along like brothers. They kill time playing video games and invented their own full-contact game in the family’s backyard called TrampBall, a UFC-version of basketball on a trampoline.
Cobbs calls Grandpa Lattner “Papa John,” his family nickname. Over the summer, Cobbs joined the Lattners for a family reunion in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
“We’re definitely family,” Robert Spillane said. “He’s not just family here. He’s part of the whole family — our Lattner family and our Spillane family.”
Robert Spillane has contacted Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck encouraging him to recruit Cobbs for football. Colleges are waiting to see how his senior season goes after missing junior year due to IHSA restrictions.
Cobbs played basketball for Montini last season and will return to OPRF’s team after winning an AAU national title over the summer with Next Level Performance, a team founded by former Bulls player Dickey Simpkins.
“Simmie is like a brother,” Gretchen Spillane said. “Henry says, ‘I have three brothers and a sister.’ The little ones do consider him part of the family.”