At their best, the Sumner Bulldogs could only be stopped by an act of God.
On this drizzly day in November, that invincible era seems a distant memory to football coach Larry Walls as he uses a soiled white towel to wipe mud off practice balls, occasionally tossing a clean one into play and getting a muddy one in return.
Sure, Sumner still made the state playoffs, but for years Walls had 80-90 teenagers coming out for his team. He never cut anybody, but he'd lose players through attrition -- they'd get flunking grades, otherwise mess up in or out of class, or not show up for practice and be suspended. But at the end of this season, on the soggy practice field of Tandy Park six blocks north of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, barely 30 kids are dressed out for the last week of practice before Sumner's first-round playoff game.
Asked to reminisce about which were his best teams during his 28 years of coaching in the Ville, the North Side neighborhood that is home to Sumner, the 61-year-old Walls first responds that the early years were the peak years, from 1972 to the early '80s.
Then he reconsiders, bringing up the team he had from 1989-91. As the mist continues to fall and assistant coach Kurtland Thomas runs a scrimmage, Walls recalls one of the big reasons that team was so good.
"You know, '90 and '91 were two great years for us. We had an outstanding football team. This kid played for us," Walls says as he turns and points to a formidable-looking man in his 20s who stands about 15 feet away, watching his alma mater's football practice. "We were so big -- he was about 300. Hey, Bo, what did you weigh when you played tackle here?"
"Ah ... 280," Bo responds.
"I thought you were 300 pounds."
"By the end of the year I was, yeah."
"Danny was what, 245?"
"About 250 at the most."
"What was Cerfonz?"
"And Arte was what, about 315?"
"He was 320."
"Who was the other tackle?"
"Rodney Epps? He was 277?"
The memory, and the size of that memory, makes Walls stifle a laugh.
"That was a big line. And those kids played offense. They didn't play defense -- they just played offense."
For the record, Sumner's offensive line that year was center Arte Middleton (320 pounds), guards Cerfonz Parker (245) and Danny Spann (245), and tackles Rodney Epps (275) and Napoleon Williams (280). The line's nickname that year was FDDUF -- Five Dirty Dawgs Up Front. Williams, who refreshed Walls' memory during this recent practice, was nicknamed "Bo" because he says people thought he had "bowed legs." Seven years after that season, it's a name he still answers to, at least when his coach calls it out.
"We were 4A, but we could have whupped any 5A team around," Walls says, referring to the top two categories in Missouri high-school competition, which are based on enrollment. "In '91, we averaged 45 points a game and scored 54 points in the state-championship game, and that game was cut short because of a storm."
Nostalgia has gilded Walls' memory a touch. Actually, Sumner beat St. Joseph Benton 52-8 in the Class 4A state-championship game. But lightning and pouring rain did stop the Bulldogs, with referees ending the game two-and-a-half minutes early because of the dangerous storm.
That year Sumner finished the year 11-1, its only loss early in the season to a Bob Shannon-coached East St. Louis team that went on to win the Illinois state title. After finishing second in the state playoffs in 1989, the Bulldogs won consecutive state titles in '90 and '91. Sumner's previous titles were in 1973 and 1982; the '91 championship remains Sumner's most recent.
The back-to-back state titles came at a time when the Sumner student body had been moved out of the school so that it could be renovated as part of the desegregation plan. After spending fall 1989 through spring 1990 at McKinley High School on Russell Boulevard on the South Side, Sumner students returned to the school on Cottage Avenue for the '91 school year. Walls sees the move, the renovation and the continued decline in enrollment as related, directly or indirectly, to the court-sanctioned desegregation agreement.
The city-county desegregation program is a sore subject with Walls, and he points to it as the cause of many of Sumner's problems, on and off the field. That's understandable, because Walls is a man who didn't go when the going got tough -- he stayed. He played football at Sumner, graduated from Sumner, got his college degree and returned to coach at Sumner -- which, given the slightest chance, he will readily tell you, was the first high school west of the Mississippi River for African-Americans when it opened in 1875.
For a man who stayed in the neighborhood even as the evacuation was on, the deseg plan seemed more of an admission of defeat than a plan of attack. That Walls returned to his school, organized a winning program and achieved statewide recognition means he not only defied the odds, he beat them.
"Just a total city person"
There is no one answer as to why Sumner has fewer players than in years past, but it begins with sheer population. Just a year before Walls became coach, in the 1970 census, the city itself had a population of 622,236. In 1997, the estimated population was 341,869. Like any city resident, Walls has seen the population deflate, but he's more focused on the choices students have made.
His most basic personal complaint is that among the 12,853 African-American city students who choose to attend school in the suburbs are a bunch of fine city athletes who will end up playing for suburban football programs. As of Nov. 4, county high schools in the desegregation program had 4,285 African-American city students enrolled.
The idea that thousands of black city kids would pick suburbia over the city clearly baffles Walls. The veteran coach himself played on Sumner's football team as a 160-pound guard in the early 1950s. He then graduated from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, a historically African-American school. After that, he came back to teach in city schools. Raised near the intersection of Chouteau and Ohio avenues, he moved to the Ville when he was 11 and stayed there through high school. He now lives in Northwoods, near Lucas and Hunt Road and Interstate 70.
"I'm just a total city person," Walls says. "Spent all my life here, you know. I'm just totally committed to Sumner High School. If I had had to stop coaching here but I could have coached at a county school, I would not have coached. Being here is where I want to be."
But apparently the same cannot be said for everyone else. Mostly because of a population exodus and partly as a result of transfers through the desegregation program, overall enrollment in the city public schools has dropped from 111,233 in 1970 to 45,773 this year, not including the 12,853 city students who go to school in the suburbs. In 1980, two years before the transfer program started, the city schools had 62,759 students.
Sumner's enrollment this semester is 915 and for the last several years has been hovering around 1,000, about half what it once was. That means that throughout the '90s, Sumner has floated back and forth between Class 4A and 5A athletic competition, depending on each year's enrollment.
James Zach, the new director of the Public High League (PHL) to which Sumner belongs, said the league's competitive strength has been sapped by a declining base of students.
"We're just not dealing with the same numbers that we were before. You look back, and Sumner probably had 2,500 students, Beaumont had 3,200 and Soldan had 3,000 at one time. You just don't have the numbers to choose from anymore," says Zach.
Sumner ruled PHL football in the '80s and early '90s, winning the title from 1983-1994. In '95, Vashon won the title, before Sumner won it back in 1996. Roosevelt won in '97, and this year Beaumont and Sumner shared the title. In the old days before the '80s, there was greater balance in the PHL, Zach recalls.
"Sumner was dominant, but there were four or five other strong teams each year. Sumner was just the strongest. Beaumont, even McKinley, had strong teams back in the '60s and '70s," says Zach.
At one time, there were 11 active football programs, including teams at high schools that since have closed: McKinley, Southwest and Northwest. Currently there are seven football programs in the PHL. Metro High and the Visual and Performing Arts Academy at Central don't field football teams.
According to a Post-Dispatch tally in 1993, in the first 10 years of the desegregation program, 1983-1993, the PHL was 66-124 against nonleague opponents. Sumner was 34-18 against non-PHL foes during that span, so without Sumner the PHL would have been 32-106 in those 10 years.
In Walls' eyes, the desegregation program has diminished both the PHL and Sumner. Even the structural rehabilitation of his school, financed by the state, doesn't meet with Walls' approval. "It's been rehabbed," Walls admits. "They did a lousy job, but it's been rehabbed. I don't know who the hell they had do these buildings, but whoever they had do them, they should not have gotten paid. Cosmetically, it looked great when you looked at it, but it was cheap and falling apart. Hell, the roof leaked the day they put it on."
The Voluntary Interdistrict Transfer Program began in 1982, but Walls feels that its negative effects really didn't hurt his football program in the early stages. Once the students had been moved out, the school renovated and the students moved back in, the slide began.
"We hung on for a very long time after deseg," says Walls. "Then, in the '90s, it got to us. After '91, it really got to us. We had a good program. Kids like to come to good programs."
Sumner football is still a "good program," but the adolescents in its attendance zone have more options, and, as the years pass, many are exercising those options. Even when football is not the determining factor, Walls doesn't see why all those educational immigrants head to the county for what they perceive to be a better life. Walls bristles that they think such a trip is needed.
"If you want an education, you can get an education in any of these schools in the inner city. If you don't want an education, you can't get an education anywhere -- it doesn't matter where you go. We have a college-prep program here at Sumner High School that's second to none. If a kid comes here and he really wants to get an education, he can get it right at Sumner High School. It doesn't make any difference -- you can go to Lindbergh, you can go to Ladue, you can go to Clayton; if you don't want to learn, you're not going to learn. It's the individual."
As Walls speaks these words, it's several days before he finds out who Sumner's opponent in the first round of the state playoffs will be -- either Ladue or undefeated Clayton High School, ranked the No. 1 small school in the area. That Saturday, Clayton shut out Ladue 7-0.
Players of the inner city unite
Karl Marx died long before football became popular, but he would have been familiar with what went down on that brisk Wednesday night in November at Gateway Tech. Marx viewed history as a series of class conflicts. The Sumner-Clayton game was another chapter in that series. Karl would have felt at home.
A bit more than six miles apart as the pigeon flies, Clayton and Sumner appear much further apart when money, resources and social status are considered. The median household income for Clayton High School's ZIP code, based on the 1990 census, was $43,941. For Sumner's ZIP code, it was $12,284. That's median household income, which means half the household incomes are above that figure, half below.
As for the school district, about 80 percent of students in Clayton have a parent who has at least a bachelor's degree. In St. Louis city's school district, fewer than 10 percent of its students have a parent with at least a bachelor's degree. According to the 1990 census, the median home value in the Clayton school district was $248,095. In the city, the average house in 1990 sold for $49,677.
So it's clear, off the field, who the favorite was by most material measurements. On the sidelines, other differences were clear. Clayton had two large, propane-powered portable heaters; at least one of its sideline coaches talked through a headset; and they had more than 20 cheerleaders. Sumner had only flimsy space heaters and was outnumbered 2-to-1 in cheerleaders. And because they had no headsets, late in the game, when Walls was upset about the clock's not being activated promptly, he could only turn to the skies and yell at the press box, "Who the hell is running that damn clock?"
Yet for all the real and apparent differences between schools, fans and teams, for this playoff football game, the only real estate that mattered was marked off by chalk and the only numbers that counted were on the scoreboard. The value of sports, however limited, is that it provides a least common denominator for people who seldom interact, giving them an activity to observe and discuss, even if it is of fictional importance. When amateur sports work, they provide a productive activity for the participants and inexpensive and benign diversion for the spectators. This football game, despite a few awkward moments, would fill the bill.
As for the football, Clayton started out looking like the undefeated team they were. The Greyhounds, as they are called, scored first when Pete Stonard caught a 21-yard pass from quarterback Derrick Frost. Sumner moved the ball confidently, scoring two touchdowns but failing to convert its extra points, both times opting not to kick. Clayton, with the precision of a well-coached team, drilled a field goal just before the half to make the score at the break 12-10, in favor of Sumner.
To the untrained eye, the game appeared closer than it really was. Sumner runs the ball, a lot, relying on misdirection handoffs and backfield motion. A dominant ground game, once rolling, tends to wear down the opponent. The eventual star of the game, Sumner's Tyron Griffin, was only getting warmed up in the first half. At 6-foot-1 and about 220 pounds, the junior running back was set to take over the second half.
During the halftime break, Sumner gathered behind the bleachers, on the lawn in front of Gateway Tech. Walls gave no Knute Rockne speech; there was no rapt attention or screamed reprisals. Peeling and eating oranges, drinking water, the offense listened as their coach, repeatedly, told them to shut the hell up in the huddle. "Stop running your damn mouth," Walls said again and again, apparently because some of the offense had started to argue or blame each other in the huddle for plays that didn't work. His approach was low-key, but his players listened.
"Is anybody here tired?" Walls asked his team, rhetorically, as halftime was about to end. "No," was the scripted response. Walls' last line at halftime: "Then let's take it to them."
And in the second half they did. There was no mystery to what was going to happen; there was only a question of exactly where Griffin was going to get the ball, at which spot he would cut into the line, how many yards he would gain. As the game wore on for Clayton and it became obvious that the Greyhounds were fading, whenever Griffin would be dragged down or stopped, he would get up more quickly than his tacklers. Tyron "The Train" Griffin was on his game.
For the night, he carried the ball 38 times, gained 302 yards and scored four touchdowns. Sumner won 30-10. Clayton, no longer undefeated, was out of the playoffs, its season ended.
The night's few awkward moments came when the game's outcome had become apparent. Clayton fans began to file out, with many of them walking past the east end zone. Outside the chain-link fence was the usual gathering of folks who came to watch the game but had no intention of paying the four-buck admission. Predictably, the Claytonites were treated with a barrage of expletives from the virtually all-African-American group outside the fence. A security guard stood nearby, somehow making the woofing appear safe, and even though the language was anything but friendly, the situation never escalated beyond a crowd equivalent of trash-talking.
One of the spectators at that game was Clayton High School athletic director Rich Grawer. The former basketball coach at DeSmet High School, where he won three state titles in the '70s, and St. Louis University, where he coached for 10 years, Grawer recognized what Sumner had done.
"Walls did an awfully good job," Grawer says. "His kids played a perfect ball game against us. They were truly awesome. They deserved to win the game.
"I admire Walls, just like I admire Bob Shannon, who used to be at East St. Louis -- they took kids and gave them discipline. Against us, they looked like a well-oiled machine. That's a credit to the coach.
"Guys like Walls, who have stayed in the business, deserve so much credit. They're admirable," says Grawer. "My hat is off to him."
Crossing the borders
Having voiced his admiration for what Walls did against his school and in his career in general, Grawer begs to differ with the Sumner coach on some of Walls' views of how the school-desegregation program has affected area athletics. Walls believes that county-school coaches actively solicit elementary-school kids to transfer to their schools and that the lottery is rigged to help those transfers happen.
"We won state championships in '90 and '91, but by that time the county had such a strong stranglehold on kids in the city that they were coming in and recruiting just like colleges recruit," says Walls. "County schools recruit, which is against the rules. But they do. Special privileges are given the athletes. It's supposed to be like a lottery-type situation, where you want to go, and so many kids get in, and there are some who don't. The athletes are never turned away. They always get in."
Grawer doesn't see it that way, because he doesn't see how the lottery could be fixed so anyone could be sure a certain student will get into the county school of his choice. "If the deseg program is operated the way they say it's operated, it's virtually impossible to do that," says Grawer. "I know at our place there's no way I can identify a black inner-city athlete if I wanted to and tell him, 'Put Clayton at the top of your list,' because it's based on the time it (the application) is done, the number of kids who apply. We have no choice in picking who we want; it's done by the deseg office. I can't call the deseg office and say, 'I want John Jones to come to Clayton. He put us as No. 1 on his list. We want him bad.' They'd hang up the phone on me, right off the bat."
Susan Uchitelle, executive director of the Voluntary Interdistrict Transfer Program, agrees. "I can't say that coaches don't go down and say to kids, 'Hey, we want you to go to X place -- apply,'" says Uchitelle. "But they can't get in any easier. They literally have to apply. Every one of our applications is time-stamped. I am totally not aware, in all honesty, that athletes get in any easier. As high-school kids, they probably get in less easier because there's less space.
On our forms, nothing says 'athlete.' Nothing gives any indication. They could coax him in applying and putting a certain district -- that we wouldn't know."
Many factors determine which school districts have waiting lists and which don't. If a city student has attended an elementary school in a county district, the student has priority to go to that suburban district's high school. New high-school slots would open only if some of those elementary transfer students decided to go elsewhere or if the high school needed more African-American students to meet their desegregation goals. In addition, the "first-ring" districts -- Clayton, Ladue, Brentwood, Webster Groves -- fill up immediately, says Uchitelle: "The hardest ones are the first ring of schools. One, they're close; two, they're small; and three, their reputations precede them. They fill up very quickly. Mehlville, Lindbergh and Rockwood are harder to fill up -- they take kids to the very end."
One coach in the Junior Football League does admit there is recruiting of a sort for some 12-year-old football players in the city. According to the coach, the action is more subtle than what goes on in college recruiting. Seldom will a high-school coach appear to talk directly to parents or a young athlete; more often suburban high-school coaches will have friends or alumni contact them when they see a particularly good prospect. Through third parties and mutual acquaintances, these young prodigies might be nudged into applying for one school district or another. Again, however, the dynamics of the deseg plan would be the main determinant of the applicant's chances at getting the school of his or her choice. Picking a Mehlville, Bayless or Lindbergh would increase the odds; trying for a Clayton, Kirkwood or Ladue would lessen the odds.
That city athletes go to suburban football programs and don't come back doesn't mystify this JFL coach. "Why would they come back? They're good programs," he says. Well-maintained practice fields, spacious locker rooms, decent equipment and good-looking uniforms are easy to like. The tradeoffs are a bus ride and being in unfamiliar surroundings -- two drawbacks many think are worth the hassle.
The controversy over recruiting isn't limited to suburban schools' trolling the city for athletes. There's also the public-private schism, with public schools accusing private schools of soliciting eighth-graders to attend their institutions. The private school has the advantage of not having an attendance zone, meaning that it can accept students from anywhere, not just a defined area.
Grawer has seen several sides of this. "Public schools are accusing the private schools of recruiting kids, yet public schools accuse other public schools because kids live in one district and go to another," says Grawer. "When I was recruiting for St. Louis University, I'd go visit a kid's house thinking he lived in this particular public-school district, and he lived in another district yet was going to (a different) school."
Walls himself has been accused of recruiting city athletes who live in other schools' attendance zones. In 1991, published reports had Walls recruiting Albert Thomas, who was in Southwest High School's area, to switch to Sumner. Walls denies doing that or ever recruiting a student, but he admits students may have used somebody else's address -- an aunt, cousin or friend -- to attend Sumner. "They do it all over the city," he admits. "They do it every year. Every year kids use different addresses to go to schools they want to go to."
Be it private vs. public, city vs. county or even public vs. public within the same district, recruiting any elementary student for any school is against the rules. "They're not supposed to be recruiting athletes," says George Blase, assistant executive director of the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA). "They can go to the games, but they're not supposed to be talking to the athletes. They're not to recruit students for athletic purposes. That's a no-no."
Blase has heard the talk about suburban schools' recruiting city kids. Blase says even telling a student to put one particular school at the top of his list of three suburban schools he would want to transfer to would be against MSHSAA guidelines. This school year, the MSHSAA has formed investigative commitees to respond to written complaints from member schools. Earlier this year, Chaminade was placed on probation for a recruiting violation.
But because there is seldom Polaroid proof of an actual violation occurring, or no one willing to document and testify to such an event, the accusations linger and healthy suspicions mutate into borderline paranoia. Grawer contends that coaches have trouble living with an adolescent's decision. "What it gets down to is we, as coaches, sometimes can't realize that kids, parents, families make choices for reasons that we just can't accept," Grawer says. "It's possible that a city kid says, or the mother and father of the kid say, 'I'm not going to allow my kid to be in this environment where there's guns and shootings, so I'm sending him to the deseg program.'"
The voluntary-transfer program's Uchitelle says choices are made for a variety of reasons. "Often kids make choices based on a neighbor or a friend who says, 'I want you to go here, I want you to go there, this is a good place to be.' I've done a study on choice, and often that's how the choice is made," Uchitelle says. "They have to apply, but somebody has told them about it."
Even though Sumner's Walls complains about the effects of deseg, he's not whining or stomping sour grapes. "My philosophy is, if you don't want to play for me, you can't play for me," says Walls. "I'm not going to cut you any slack. I'm going to do it the way I do it. I'm going to raise all kind of hell for you. You genuinely have to want to play for Sumner High School in order to play here. If you're betwixt and between, and you might want to play at Pattonville or you might want to play for Sumner, you're going to end up in Pattonville, because you're going to feel like we're really on your case. If you really want to play here, then you can understand what we're doing."
That said, Walls still links the decline of the PHL to deseg. "Deseg has killed the city's athletic programs," he says. "The end of deseg would be an automatic rejuvenation of the PHL. The kids, the athletes, will have to come home. Once that happens, you'll see these teams again with 40 or 50 players on the varsity."
Grambling in the Ville
Back in the early '70s, when the desegregation suit had barely been filed and his teams had those 40 or 50 players, Walls sat down and wrote a letter to Louisiana. Because he wanted to be a good football coach, he decided to learn from the best. "When I first started in high school, I had seen Grambling play on television," Walls says. "I was fascinated. When I came to high school, I decided I wanted to be like Eddie Robinson at Grambling. So I wrote him a letter, and he called me on the phone and told me he'd be glad to have us come down." For four straight springs, Walls and a few assistant coaches took a week of educational leave to go on their own pilgrimage to the football equivalent of Mecca -- the northern Louisiana town of Grambling, where Robinson became the winningest coach in college-football history.
The system Robinson taught him has served Walls and Sumner well, but behind the system and the coach are the players. One earlier team Walls waxes nostalgic about is his 1982 state-championship team, which featured Anthony Stafford, Lorenzo McCline and Theophilus Murphy. Stafford went on to star at the University of Oklahoma during the Barry Switzer days; McCline played at Purdue. "If Theophilus broke the line, you could forget it -- he was going to score. If Lorenzo broke the line, he was going to score. And Stafford -- I mean, hell, if you got him the ball, it was darn near like he was going to score. We just had speed."
The current mainstay of the Sumner program is Tyron Griffin. Sometimes, in spite of the exodus to the suburbs, good news arrives on your doorstep. "When I first became aware of him, he was standing on the wall watching us practice. He did this every day. Every day I would look up and this kid is standing there watching us practice. I thought he was a student here at Sumner. I said to him, 'You come out here and watch every day -- you're big enough; why don't you come out here and play?' He said, 'Coach Walls, I'm still in grade school. I go to Turner.' I couldn't believe it. I said, 'No, you don't, you go to Sumner. Man, I see you every day.' He said, 'No, I don't.'"
Griffin has started since he was a freshman at Sumner. Griffin's power is evident, but his speed is harder to appreciate. In an important PHL game on Oct. 30 against Vashon, Sumner, ahead 16-14, had the ball on its own 10-yard line with 6:07 left in the game when Griffin broke to the right. He made it through the line and sprinted 90 yards for a touchdown. As he entered the end zone, the clock read 5:52. That means he covered 90 yards in 15 seconds -- with 11 people trying to stop him.
Walls knows that, with Griffin, longtime assistant coach Richard Perry will have something to build on when Perry takes over next season. That was part of why Walls picked this year instead of last year, when the team was 3-7, to retire. "I enjoy the game," Walls says. "I don't want to get to the point where I don't enjoy the game and I'm just dogging it, just going on and on and on and not enjoying it. I'd rather step down when I'm enjoying the game, when we have some talent. Coach Perry will be starting out with some talent. Don't want to be leaving somebody with nothing."
One last good play
In the end, there was a loss, a lopsided loss. Jefferson City Helias, a miniature Notre Dame, beat Sumner, a miniature Grambling. On the field of Walls' alma mater, Lincoln University, Helias won 35-6. Sumner, uncharacteristically, seemed dysfunctional: missed blocks, botched coverages, sloppy attempted tackles, ineffective offense. There was frustration, disappointment and some anger. And when it was almost over, there was finally -- finally -- a well-executed play by the Bulldogs.
With 2:13 to go in the game, Sumner was losing 35-0. Not much looked good that night. With that much time left in Larry Walls' high-school football coaching career at Sumner, Damon Davis broke through the right side of the line and bolted 57 yards for a touchdown. Score: 35-6. The Bulldogs had scored. They would not be shut out.
The second Davis entered the end zone, Walls turned back to the bench, yelling to no one in particular, or to everyone in particular: "That's the first damn time we get a trap block." The exasperation was evident, and so was the lesson, as the last two minutes of his 28 years as coach at Sumner ticked away. Run the play. Block your man. Do your job. It was a gospel of discipline preached by a man who practiced it, having been diagnosed with diabetes a few years back and keeping to a strict diet that had him lose 50 pounds, dropping to 160 from 210.
The final game was another study in contrasts. Helias had navy-blue jerseys and gold helmets a la Notre Dame. Their band, dressed in blue uniforms, ruffled shirts and gold cummerbunds, repeatedly played "We Will Rock You" (somehow this is not what Freddie Mercury had in mind). After a touchdown, the band played the Notre Dame fight song. The public-address announcers kept announcing fundraising sales to support the private Catholic school's band and athletic teams. Sumner's band didn't make the trip, and its crowd was dwarfed by the hometown Helias turnout.
Then, as if the score weren't enough, the final ignominy was the announcement before the end of the game that the victory meant Helias coach Ray Hentges would win his 250th game. That this would be two victories more than Walls' total was lost on the announcer and the crowd. Helias would go on to win the state Class 4A championship, and Hentges also would retire.
Napoleon "Bo" Williams, the 280-pound tackle on the Bulldogs' '91 team, had made the trip to Jefferson City and was standing near the Sumner bus after the game. He said he noticed that, more than a few times, it seemed that the Helias defense knew what was coming. Williams said that was the downside of staying with the same offense for so many years: Coaches got to know it.
In a postgame meeting at midfield, Walls was asked by two reporters about the game, and he gave the usual bromides about how his team was going for touchdowns instead of first downs, that they hadn't played well and he didn't know why but he might know "after I look at the game film." After he looks at the game film? Maybe the comment was made out of habit, or maybe it hadn't sunk in that the season was over, that his coaching career was over. Just minutes later he would be met on the field by his wife, Barbara, and he would walk off the field for the last time, arm-in-arm with her.
Walls plans to keep busy with his five grandchildren, one of whom plays basketball at Berkeley High School. He also wants to do more with the Sumner Football Alumni Association, which essentially at this point is a group of two -- Walls and a fellow teammate from the '50s, his friend Joseph McKinley. The two organize raffles and fundraisers to get money for new uniforms for the team. Walls wants to make a greater effort to contact former players for Sumner and involve them in the support of the school's football team. Two of those alumni are San Francisco 49ers defensive back Darnell Walker and Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman Hollis Thomas.
This type of support, both financial and participatory, is what Walls believes Sumner and the PHL need to fight a holding action until the desegregation program is phased out or becomes a less attractive option for city kids. So even as Walls retires, he will do what he can to bolster Sumner's football program, trying to build on the past to make the best of an uncertain future.
"Deseg has killed the city's athletic programs," Walls says. "If deseg ever ends, it'll be just like it used to be. The PHL will be the toughest league around. I just hate that I'm going out before it happens, because it's going to happen.