Anthony Booker doubles as a billboard. Desperate to find some fresh blood for his football team, the Taft High School coach roamed the halls Tuesday with a sign taped to his shirt.
"It said, "Football meeting today in the cafeteria at 2:15,' " Booker said. "If they laughed at it, at least I got their attention. I have a program that's dying, and I'm trying to do CPR."
Football players have become an endangered species in the Cincinnati Public Schools, and their numbers have lately dropped to crisis levels. Taft canceled Friday's scheduled opener because Booker is still short on bodies. Woodward's manpower shortage has caused the school to drop its games against Grove City and Cleveland Benedictine.
"It's beyond desperation now," Woodward coach Ed Jackson said. "We're in damage control. We're going down the hall, grabbing guys. I'm going to start working the bus stops. I'll get 'em before they go home."
Eighty-five students signed up to play football at Woodward last May. Monday, Jackson held practice with 11 players. Coaches expect a certain amount of attrition before the start of each season. What they didn't expect, until quite recently, is apathy.
They would rather sell burgers
Football is too rough for some students and too time-consuming for others. It demands a kind of commitment a lot of high school kids aren't prepared to make. It conflicts with summer jobs and impedes creative loafing at the pool.
It is clearly not the extracurricular activity for everyone. What is not clear is why it appeals to hardly anyone at Taft and Woodward. "I'm shocked, to say the least," said Joe Bell, athletic director for Cincinnati Public Schools. "Whatever happened this year, we're not real sure. I wish we could say, then we could really attack the problem. But I believe this is going on in a lot of urban districts right now."
Theories abound. Coaches claim their numbers are down in part because of 1995 budget cuts which temporarily eliminated junior high school feeder programs. Another leading suspect is Cincinnati's no pass - no play eligibility policy, which was implemented in 1994.
Presumably, the increasing availability of part-time jobs has made unpaid labor less attractive to high school students. Teen-agers have historically preferred greenbacks to grass drills, and not even the E. coli bacteria has eliminated the help wanted ads at the hamburger joints.
"I've tried everything under the sun," Booker said. "I've been in every recreation center. I went to fast-food restaurants to talk to the kids. I put a sign on the side of the (school) building, and I don't think I gained one player from that advertisement."
A lost cause
Soon after Booker convened summer practice, his lack of numbers became acute. Starting quarterback Rodney Cunningham and Taft's three senior captains advised him they were transferring to Withrow. There, they would be reunited with former Taft coach Troy Green. There, they could be confident of a full football season.
"One of the things kids always say is, 'Are you going to have a team?' " Booker said. "I tell them, 'We're that much closer to having a team if you are a member.
"The kids that we have, they see the light at the end of the tunnel. But the kids who came to the meeting yesterday, they're not sure the light is very bright."
Booker spent his lunch period Wednesday scouring the Taft cafeteria for talent. "There was a big old freshman up there," he said. "He told me he couldn't come today, but maybe tomorrow. I'm not going to beg him."
Ed Jackson may not be too proud to beg. He has spent 42 years around football, and he is not sure he will know what to do with himself when he faces a Friday night without a game.
"We were 7-3 two years ago, playing for the league championship," he said. "Now, it makes you wonder. I start pouting and feeling sorry for myself. I feel like I'm the skipper of the Titanic."
Lost causes can be romantic, but they tend to end badly.
"Our slogan is, 'Remember the Alamo,' " Ed Jackson said. "We're totally outnumbered, but we're going to hang tough."