Friday, September 10, 1999

Taft, Woodward struggle to fill rosters

Grades, soccer, jobs block teams

The Cincinnati Enquirer

A shortage of players has left Charles Anderson, Taft High School's football coach, scrambling to field a team.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        Football means the world to Brian Mallory.

        The Taft High School senior does everything in his power to play: He keeps his grades up, stays out of trouble, works hard at practice and urges teammates to do the same.

        Brian was ready for Taft's first game Aug. 27 against Holy Cross. He hoped college recruiters would be watching. Then his coach told him seven other boys — half of the team — couldn't play because they failed too many classes at the end of last year.

        Taft forfeited. Brian was furious.

        “It was the third year in a row that we forfeited a game,” he said while dressing for practice Wednesday afternoon. “I love football. It's my game. I just want to play.”

        Taft isn't the only urban Ohio high school football team with a slim roster to forfeit a game this season. So have Woodward, Taft's opponent tonight, and Lincoln West in Cleveland.

Woodward High football players, from left, Santino Turnbow, Vernon Powell Jr. and Derexter Davis all say they stick with the program because of the positive influence it has on their lives.
(Gary Landers photo)
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        Failure to meet academic requirements is one explanation for smaller football ros ters. Eighty-five boys at 1,300-student Woodward signed up to play this season. Fifteen met the Cincinnati Public Schools' requirement of taking four academic subjects and keeping a 2.0 — or C — average.

        There are other reasons — students with jobs, transportation problems and activi ties such as soccer that compete for kids' interests — that speak more to time and place, say coaches, school administrators and students.

        At Taft and Woodward, no single player is expendable.

        Six of Woodward's 15 players were injured in their first-game loss to Troy and weren't able to play last Friday. They've healed.

        Charles Anderson, Taft's coach, has since recruited other students who have the grades to play.

        At Taft, Woodward and other schools, city and suburban, many students would rather work at jobs than participate in extracurricular activities.

        Some boys who would like to play football have to work to help support their families.

        One Taft player lives on his own and works to pay rent and buy food. Mr. Anderson allows him to leave practice early every afternoon to go to work.

        The first-year Taft coach played football at Withrow High School before graduating in 1976 and moving on to play college ball at Central State University. “We were all allowed to be kids back then. A lot of kids today have to be adults,” said Mr. Anderson.

        “In most families back then, going to school and playing a sport were your job,” he said.

        Mr. Anderson was an assistant football coach for 10 years at Turpin High School in the suburban Forest Hills district. Not one of the 60 boys out for football last year at the Anderson Township school had a job during the season, he said.

        Other students have transportation problems. There's no line of parents driving minivans and SUVs waiting in front of Taft and Woodward to pick up their sons after practice.

        One student who plays at Woodward, which is in Bond Hill, has to take a Metro bus downtown to transfer to the bus that takes him home to Kennedy Heights, coach Ed Jackson said. The boy doesn't get home until 7:30. Practice ends at 5:30.

        Some students don't want to work as hard as football requires, coaches and players say. They'd rather hang out. Being an athlete used to be cool. No more.

        The number of boys coming out for football is lower at most schools, regardless of location. Interscholastic soccer teams, almost nonexistent a generation ago, are everywhere now.

        “There's a lot of competition for kids' time these days. It's more than academic standards,” said Ron Madrick, athletic director at Holmes Senior and Junior high schools in Covington. “The numbers playing football aren't what they used to be throughout Northern Kentucky.”

        But no Kentucky urban school that he or other sources know of has forfeited a game because of lack of players.

        In Kentucky, students must pass at least two-thirds of their classes to play sports, according to the Kentucky High School Athletic Association.

        “Our whole philosophy is you can't help kids if you throw them away,” Mr. Madrick said.

        Cincinnati Public Schools' policy is tougher than the state's, which is issued by the Ohio High School Athletic Association. The majority of high school students in Ohio must pass at least 75 percent of their classes to participate in athletic events. One of the failing grades may be in a core academic subject, such as math or science.

        Cincinnati Public has tried to improve football turnout at its urban high schools, said athletics manager David Dierker. The pay-to-play fee was waived at five of the seven high schools that play football. Walnut Hills students still pay $150 to play a sport. Hughes students must pay $50.

        Even at schools that haven't forfeited games, the number of boys coming out is way down. Reserve and freshman teams, common a generation ago, are not always possible now. At Woodward and Taft, all boys in grades 9 through 12 are on the varsity roster.

        Three Cincinnati Public neighborhood high schools — Aiken, Western Hills and Withrow — have recruited enough players to form freshman teams, in addition to their varsity squads. The other two CPS high schools with football teams, Walnut Hills and Hughes, as magnet schools with special academic programs, draw from the entire city and have adequate numbers of players to fill a roster.

        CPS reinstated football at middle schools last year after a five-year absence. High school coaches are encouraged to visit middle-school players and introduce them to high school players to keep them interested in the sport.

        Players at Taft and Woodward are often the cream of the male student crop.

        “If anybody meets these kids, you see what a good idea sports are,” Mr. Dierker said.

        Brian Mallory of Over-the-Rhine is Taft's captain. A natural leader, he told teammates to dress quickly for practice Wednesday and begin walking to the practice field at Porter Middle School.

        When an underclassman snapped a teammate with a shoulder pad strap, Brian said, “Man, give me 10 (push-ups). You don't do that to one of the guys.”

        The other boy started to walk out.

        “Listen, I'm telling you, I'm going to Coach if you don't do 10.”

        The boy did the pushups.

        “We got to stay together here,” Brian said.

        Sometimes, Brian allows himself to daydream about playing at Moeller or for another of the Tristate's prep football powers. At 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, he is Taft's starting fullback and linebacker. At schools with more players, the athletes often specialize at one position.

        That's a luxury neither Taft nor Woodward have.

        Despite the frustrations of playing at Taft — forfeits, only five seniors of 1,000 students play football, a 1-8 record last year — Brian is proud of his school. It's the place where his dreams of a college degree and college football have taken wing.

        His dreams are not out of reach, he insists. There are role models.

        Woodward graduate John Jackson, 34, plays for the San Diego Chargers and is one of the National Football League's highest-paid and best offensive linemen.

        Taft graduate Vaughn Booker, 31, is a defensive end for the Green Bay Packers and is in his sixth NFL season.

        Across the line tonight, Brian Mallory will face three Woodward seniors who have different versions of the same dream.

        As it did for those professional players, playing football at an urban high school has made them more resilient, they say.

        “Even though our opponents have bigger numbers (more players), we don't back down from them,” said Derexter Davis of Avondale. At 6-1, 215, he's the starting fullback and linebacker for the Bulldogs. “It makes you play harder.”

        At 210 pounds, Vernon Powell Jr. of Bond Hill is a starting offensive and defensive lineman.

        “You want to earn the other team's respect,” he said. “You want to win, but you don't earn respect by what it says on the scoreboard.” Woodward's record was 2-6 last year.

        “It's about giving 100 percent all the time,” said Santino Turnbow, the team's star, who plays quarterback and linebacker. The 6-foot, 190-pounder almost passed out after practicing in Wednesday's 90-degree heat.

        He breathed hard after his fourth 150-yard sprint. He fell to his knees. His elbow bled from diving for a fumble during an earlier drill.

        “You got to work hard when nobody's watching,” Santino said. “That's how you're at your best when (college) recruiters see you play.”

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