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The Public High League once dominated the local gridiron scene, and suburban districts were perennial doormats. Now it's the other way around. Ever wonder why?


The ball is at the one-yard line. It's third down. The Webster Groves Statesmen, in front of a home crowd at Hixson Middle School, trail the Jefferson City Jays by seven points with just under ten minutes left in the first half.

It's the first Friday in October, the first night this fall that's truly felt like football weather. The lights above the stadium give the field an unnatural glow. A group of teenagers, in the front row of the bleachers near the 30-yard line, tease another kid, tossing his black-and-orange Webster Groves cap among themselves as he vainly reaches for it.

Darrell Jackson, the Statesmen's senior quarterback, takes the snap from center and fakes a handoff to his tailback. As the two teams collide at the line of scrimmage, Jackson makes an abrupt turn to his left and scrambles for the corner of the end zone. It's just a one-yard run, but it seems to take forever, despite Jackson's burst of speed once he makes his cut. The crowd holds its collective breath, then erupts as Jackson's feet cross the goal line just ahead of the Jeff City safety.

Webster Groves scores twice after halftime and takes a 20-13 lead into the fourth quarter against the bigger Jeff City team, mostly on the strength of Jackson's arm. But the defense wilts, giving up 21 points in the last twelve minutes, and Jeff City squeaks by, 34-26. Jackson's stats, though, are stellar: 88 rushing yards, 261 passing, and four touchdowns. And the nonconference loss, Webster Groves' first of the season, won't hurt the squad's chance to defend its Class 5 state title.

After the game, when the lights go down and the crowd clears out, Jackson has a longer commute home than most of his teammates. He leaves the upwardly mobile enclave of Webster Groves and heads back into St. Louis, to his parents' home on a street that has been blocked off by the city to keep out drug traffic, a street pocked with vacant lots and condemned apartment buildings.

Jackson is one of 10,000 African-American students who live inside the city limits but attend school in predominantly white schools in St. Louis County. He's also one of the hundreds of city students who play football in suburban school districts. For Jackson, who started going to Webster Groves schools in seventh grade, it has turned out well: Widely touted as the top high school player in the metro area, he's being recruited by several Division I colleges, including the University of Missouri and the University of Illinois. ESPN ranks him the seventeenth-best quarterback in the nation.

But Jackson's success comes at a price. And for the past twenty years, the city's Public High League has been paying it.

From the 1960s through the '80s, the Public High League dominated St. Louis-area football. Lawrence Walls, who retired in 1998, presided over a dynasty at Sumner High School, beginning in 1971. Only Bob Shannon's East St. Louis Senior High program in Illinois rivaled Sumner during Walls' reign, as the Bulldogs won state titles in 1973, 1982, 1990 and 1991 and made it to the championship game five other times between '74 and '89. Beaumont consistently challenged Sumner for the city championship, while teams from McKinley, Soldan and Cleveland also won PHL titles. All those schools produced dozens of players who went on to successful college and pro careers -- the list of stars is headed with names like Lorenzo Brinkley Sr., who starred at Beaumont in the '60s and then at Missouri, and Demetrious Johnson, who played at Soldan and Mizzou before going on to the NFL. On Friday nights, PHL games were raucous, celebratory events, with games held at either Soldan, Gateway or the old Southwest High -- the only schools in the city with fields at the time. Hundreds of students, parents and alumni filled the stands, dressed in team colors. School bands provided vibrant halftime shows, and almost every PHL matchup was a cross-town rivalry.

Nowadays a city championship -- not a state title or even a playoff berth -- is the best a PHL team can hope for. Sumner's 1991 state champs were the last city team to make the finals. Last year's PHL co-champions, Beaumont and Cleveland, with records of 6-4 and 6-5, respectively, failed to make the playoffs. So far this year, PHL schools have a combined record of 3-17 against non-conference opponents. Of the top senior prospects in the metro area picked by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the beginning of the season, only one plays for a PHL team -- and that player, Vashon wide receiver William Franklin, is being recruited by colleges for his basketball skills as much as for his pass-catching ability. Only seven of the original eleven schools in the PHL still field teams. Many teams don't even play at the home fields that have been built in the past two decades; each team in the league plays at least one of its home games this year at Gateway Tech on McRee Avenue in south St. Louis. Beaumont, located on Natural Bridge Avenue in north St. Louis, and Cleveland (in south St. Louis) play their entire home schedules at Gateway.

While the city schools were dominating the gridiron in the '60s, '70s and '80s, county high schools slumbered, rarely contending for state titles. The exceptions, all in Class 4: McCluer won back-to-back championships in 1968 and '69, Hazelwood -- a single high school at the time -- won in 1972 and Webster Groves won in 1979. Additionally, Hazelwood Central lost in the Class 4 championship game four times during the period 1977-81.

But since 1982, teams from county schools have won seven state titles and finished runner-up another thirteen times. Last year Webster Groves won the Class 5 title, and Lindbergh lost in the championship game of the newly created Class 6. Mehlville made it to the Class 6 semifinals before losing. In Class 4, Eureka finished second.

The turning point was in fact 1982, when a long-standing lawsuit to desegregate area schools was settled. Beginning that year, African-American students in the city were allowed to transfer to predominantly white schools in the county, while white students from the county could transfer into the city's magnet schools. Almost from the start, county schools' rosters began loading up with black players from the city.

"The Public High League was one of the strongest athletic conferences around Missouri," sums up Sorrell Harvey, now in his third year as head coach at Roosevelt High School on St. Louis' near south side. "When desegregation happened, a number of good athletes, a number of good students, got involved. Not having the number of students, the competitiveness in the league went down."

On his roster this year, Harvey has 42 players. Sumner has 22. Beaumont has 28. That's all players -- freshmen through seniors. The Webster Groves varsity squad alone numbers 45 (including a handful of sophomores). Mehlville's varsity has 53, all juniors and seniors. Pattonville has 59. Parkway Central has 47 varsity players.

All those county teams have significant numbers of transfer students on their rosters: Mehlville has 36 transfer students in its 90-player program, or 40 percent; Parkway Central has 23 transfers on its varsity (nearly 50 percent). Seven of Pattonville's 35 junior and senior players -- 20 percent -- are transfers; the numbers are similar at Webster Groves, where 7 of the 34 juniors and seniors are transfers, including Darrell Jackson, the area's top player. One rival coach says the Mehlville football team could be called "the St. Louis All-Stars."

The numbers are disproportionate to the total percentages of transfers at those schools. Mehlville has 288 transfer students in its student population of 1,976, or just under 15 percent. Parkway Central has 171 transfers in a student body of 1,403 (12 percent). Webster Groves has 133 out of 1,342 (10 percent).

"There's no question it's hurt them," says Les Buehler, the freshman football coach at Lindbergh High School, who also teaches at Blewett Middle School in the city. "There's no question it's hurt them number-wise. We played Vashon in some non-league games a few years ago, and they had as good of athletes as we had. They played well. What hurt them was numbers. We had 50 and they had 20. We'd just wear 'em out."

There's plenty of speculation about illegal recruiting, and most coaches and administrators in the city and at county schools say it goes on -- at other schools. Mostly, however, it seems that success begets success. Players want to go where the best facilities are, to play under coaches who can take them deep into the playoffs and help them rack up the big numbers that will catch the eyes of college scouts. Parents who believe their son's best chance to go to college is on an athletic scholarship want him to play where he's liable to attract the most attention. If recruiting did go on during the early days of the transfer program -- and it's a safe bet that it did -- today the best programs have established well-worn paths between city neighborhoods and their football fields that city students follow on their own. After twenty years, those pathways seem as much a part of the high school football business as the district boundaries themselves.

"It's almost a quasi-neighborhood thing," says Mehlville principal Vince Viviano. "I have kids who tell me, 'My brother went here to school,' 'My cousin went here to school.'" But Viviano says the phenomenon isn't limited to football players. "Are they athletes? Some of them. Are they here because they're athletes? If their brothers and sisters were athletes, maybe. But I talk to parents in the county whose parents and grandparents went to Mehlville. It's a combination of things that brings kids here, and it has been for a number of years."

Whether students are lured to county schools by their friends or sent by their parents, rather than handpicked by coaches or boosters, they violate the rules set down by the Missouri State High School Activities Association if sports is part of their purpose for transferring.

As the governing body for all high school sports in the state, the MSHSAA does not allow students to transfer -- from city to county, county to city, or from public to private schools -- for athletic reasons. If MSHSAA investigators determine that a transfer was indeed for athletic reasons, the student loses all remaining eligibility.

Trouble is, there's virtually no way to pinpoint the motivation behind a transfer, concedes MSHSAA executive director Becky Oakes. "There are so many ways in which people can try to influence kids to change schools," Oakes says. Boosters, little league coaches, the parents of other students -- any of these people can exert influence. And when people outside the school are involved, there's not much the MSHSAA can do. "In some cases it may be intentional," says Oakes. "In a metropolitan area like St. Louis or Kansas City, it's easy to take place. There are so many schools, and you also have the voluntary transfer program and the whole choice issue. That sets up a scenario where it's easier for kids to pick or have something suggested to them.

"We're not a policing-type organization," Oakes concludes. "We rely on the schools to monitor themselves, and they do a pretty good job."

If coaches at the school a student is transferring to are found to have exerted undue influence -- by promising a spot in the starting line-up or offering free shoes or equipment -- the school faces sanctions, but ultimately the decision of whether to punish an offending coach lies with the individual school districts, not the MSHSAA. "It goes back to local control," says Rick Kindhart, the MSHSAA's communications director. "We deal with the administration, the administration deals with the coach. That's who the coach works for. The coach is not a member [of the MSHSAA], the school is."

In the past five years, no team in the state has been sanctioned by MSHSAA for recruiting, and only three students have been declared ineligible for transferring for athletic reasons. None of those three students were involved in the local desegregation plan.

That doesn't mean it doesn't happen. "Everybody's doing it," says Brian Simmons, home/school liaison for Pattonville High School and a former football coach there. Simmons acknowledges that the result has hurt the city schools, both athletically and academically, but he argues that the benefits for the students who go to the county are a fair trade. "Is it a bad thing? Yeah," says Simmons. "Is it a good thing? Yeah."

Simmons himself used to recruit -- not for the football team, but for the desegregation program. He set up booths at shopping centers and weekend events to advertise his school district to city students and their parents. Because he was a coach on the football team, he says, coaches and boosters expected him to actively encourage city athletes to come to Pattonville. He says he didn't have to; the district sold itself to city students. Last year 453 city students transferred to the Pattonville district.

"It's not that county schools are taking students out of the city," Simmons argues. "It's voluntary. Parents decide that the county schools have much more to offer."

The disparity in facilities offered by city and county schools is stark. While city schools have always lagged behind their county rivals in terms of money and equipment, the gap has only widened since desegregation. The football stadium at Roosevelt High School was built to hold hundreds of fans who no longer show up for Friday night games. The grass on the field is brown and worn, trampled down to patches of dirt between the hash marks. The grass stretches all the way up to the stands on the north side and to a ratty chain-link fence to the south; a circular path of trodden dirt approximates the expensive 400-meter tracks that surround typical county football fields. The field at Gateway Tech is equally threadbare, worn down by four-times-a-week practices and games on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons.

At Hixson Middle School, where the Webster Groves team practices and plays its home games, the football stadium and practice field are part of a state-of-the-art municipal recreational complex that includes tennis courts and an Olympic-size swimming pool. The stadium has been carved into the side of a hill on the east side of the campus, with metal bleachers on the opposite side for the visitors' fans. The practice field is perched on a hilltop above the stadium, covered with bright green grass and surrounded by towering stands of lights.

Lindbergh's practice field is likewise part of a grand complex, flanked by tennis courts, a soccer field and a 2,000-capacity stadium.

Darrell Jackson's mother chose to send her son to the Webster Groves School District when he was in seventh grade. It wasn't the athletic facilities or the football team's two state championships that persuaded her, he says, even though he'd already shown plenty of talent as a quarterback in the city's Junior Football League. Based on where he lives now, if he'd stayed in the St. Louis public school system Jackson would attend Roosevelt, where the Rough Riders are off to a 1-6 start, following an 0-10 season in 2002.

"I had no idea which middle school I was going to go to," says Jackson, standing on the front porch of his parents' apartment on Chouteau Avenue after practice, wearing sweatpants and slippers. "My mom looked around and thought Hixson was a good place, and I had friends there. I think that's kind of why I'm going out there now."

Despite his size -- six-foot-three and 215 pounds -- Jackson still carries some baby fat, especially in his face. He's polite and soft-spoken, but his seeming gentleness belies his football skills. Last year he passed for 2,072 yards, ran for 1,258 more and accounted for 31 touchdowns as the Statesmen went 10-2. This year, as a senior, he has compiled similarly impressive stats through five games -- 1,305 yards passing, with twelve touchdowns and six interceptions, and 496 yards and ten touchdowns on the ground -- and Webster Groves appears ready to defend its state title.

Jackson's numbers have caught the attention of college scouts. The Post-Dispatch named him the top preseason prospect in the area, and Jackson recognizes that football is his best shot at getting into college. Webster Groves head coach Cliff Ice says Jackson is a good student, but his family couldn't afford to send him to college without financial help. "If I didn't have a football scholarship, it would be hard," says the quarterback. "But I think I would have been able to go. Football just made it easier."

Ice says it's obvious that the desegregation plan has devastated the PHL. But, he adds, there's also no question that many students -- and not just athletes -- benefit from the county schools. "It's good for the kid, but it's bad for the school they left," Ice says. "You can't know where to add up the trade-off."

Sorrell Harvey says he doesn't know the names of all the players in the county who live in his school's district. But the summer camps he attends every year are full of players who leave the Roosevelt district for greener pastures. "There's quite a few," Harvey says. "I'm amazed at the number that live in this community and go to Mehlville and Kirkwood."

Sitting in his cramped office before practice during the first week of the season, Harvey insists that the superiority of county schools -- in test scores, class size and technology, as well as opportunities for football -- is overstated. He points to the star of the Rough Riders, six-foot-two, 320-pound Freddy Ball. Ball, a senior, only started playing football two years ago when an assistant coach noticed him in the hallways. He's ahead of pace to graduate in the spring and spends half his days as a teaching assistant. He says he never considered going to the county. "Never," Ball says. "I like the public schools here. I've known most of my friends here from ninth grade on up."

Ball's size alone would allow him to dominate most city offensive linemen, and Harvey -- a former assistant coach at Kansas State University -- has refined his prodigy into a topnotch defensive lineman with a rudimentary but solid technique. Even though Harvey prefers to limit his players to one side of the ball to reduce the chance of injury, his small roster forces him to start Ball on both sides. On defense, Ball is ranked ninth in the PHL this year, with eighteen solo tackles and nine assists; he has scholarship offers from Illinois and Illinois State.

Harvey insists that Ball's scholarship offers are evidence that city players can do as well in the city as they can in the county. "Just because they go out there doesn't mean they're taken care of," he says.

Earl Austin, a sportswriter for the St. Louis American who has followed prep sports here for nearly twenty years, agrees. "A top player can get attention regardless of what school he attends," Austin says. "Look at Vashon -- William Franklin is one of the top players in the state. He could play anywhere. Colleges know who he is. If there are people out there on the job, they'll find you wherever you are."

Race is almost never explicitly mentioned in discussions about local high school football. If it is, it's coded with words like "speed" and "athleticism" -- as in an October 10 Post-Dispatch headline that reads: "Speed drives offense for Mehlville." The accompanying article is about Ricky Giles and Darrell Trice, key members of Mehlville's wide-open, high-scoring offense. Both are African-American; both are transfer students from the city.

But the argument that county football programs benefit from having black athletes who are faster or who can jump higher than white suburban players seems to conform to the worst stereotypes about African-Americans and athletic ability. The unspoken assumption is that city football players -- black football players -- are physically more gifted than their white counterparts.

"I wouldn't say it's based on old stereotypes," counters Floyd Irons, athletic director at Vashon High School in the Public High League. "If I had 10,000 white students coming into black schools here, I can see how, football-wise, they might have helped, just in numbers. But would they have helped as much as we've helped them? Let me put it this way: They wouldn't have helped my basketball program."

Under the original transfer plan, run by the courts, African-American students from the city could transfer to any mostly white school system in the county. White students were also allowed to transfer to magnet schools in the city, but the numbers have always been inequitable, resulting in a net loss of more than 9,000 students this year. That, of course, would stand to reason, given the ongoing upheaval in the city's public school system.

"Since it's a purely voluntary program, it's different than forced busing or mandatory desegregation programs in other parts of the country," says Bruce Ellerman, executive director of the nonprofit Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation, which has operated the transfer program since 1999. "We've found that more parents in the city are interested in sending their kids to the county than county parents are in sending their kids to the city."

When, under the terms of the settlement, the program was turned over to VICC in 1999, the transfer system was tweaked. Whereas previously students from city schools were eligible to go anywhere in the county, the city was divided into four zones in 1999 -- the far north, the central city, and two south-city areas roughly bisected by Kingshighway -- with corresponding school districts in the county. Henceforth, students from each zone in the city could only apply to transfer to a handful of schools. The change wasn't implemented specifically to address athletic recruiting -- though it does seem to limit a potential transfer student's choices -- but to provide broader opportunity for all city students.

"We're an equal-opportunity program," says VICC's Bruce Ellerman. "Any student who has not had disruptive behavior -- a B student, an F student, an A student -- is eligible for our program. If parents in the city are making these choices, not because someone's recruiting them but because they're targeting the best football program -- well, we send our materials to all eligible students. Applications aren't processed according to grades, or even attendance. It's simply first-come, first-serve."

Still, Ellerman won't say the program isn't vulnerable to abuse. "I certainly wouldn't want to testify under oath that [recruiting] doesn't happen, or that it never happens," he says. "But it would not be in compliance with the settlement."

Ensconced behind an ornate desk in his office at the new Vashon High School building, Floyd Irons is fighting fire with fire. The former head basketball coach at Vashon and now its athletic director, Irons has overseen the construction of a new school building on Cass Avenue, with a state-of-the-art gym and a new football stadium for what is, statistically, one of the lowest-performing high schools in the city -- and the best prep basketball program in the area. Funding for the new building was authorized by the St. Louis school board as a remedy for the school's poor performance and as an improvement on the former edifice, located in one of the most depressed areas of St. Louis.

Now Irons, who has himself deflected accusations of recruiting over the years, is using the new facilities as a selling point to keep students from his district in the city. The county schools' money gives them an unfair advantage over city schools, Irons argues. "Many of the kids in public schools are leaving programs that didn't have the amenities that county schools had. They probably got excited just like any kid would. Then it's easy for the county coaches to use the desegregation program to recruit. Our kids deserve the same things. They deserve all the niceties any other kid deserves."

The new building and its accompanying athletic facilities have already gotten results, Irons reports. "The football program has gone from just being able to field a team of 20 kids, to 30 last year, and now we have 80 on our varsity and 40 to 50 on our B team," he says. (That's an aberration in the PHL; Gateway Tech has the league's next-largest varsity squad, with 35 players.)

The transfer program, meanwhile, is sputtering toward its expected end, slated for five years from now. But participation has declined by nearly 300 students in the past five years, and the program might end sooner than planned. When VICC took over four years ago, the plan was to continue transfers through 2008-09 and allow students enrolled in any grade in a county school district at that point to graduate in the same system. But the program, funded by the state until 1999, is now funded by the participating school districts through VICC. And the "voluntary" aspect doesn't just apply to transferring students; it also applies to the school districts' participation. In other words, districts can choose to withdraw from the desegregation program. That's exactly what the Ladue School District did last year. And more may follow if they decide the cost of transporting each transfer student is too great in the face of the state's continuing budget crisis.

Regardless, Floyd Irons wants to hold on to as many city kids as he can. Some of his players, he says, are coming to him from other zones inside the city. Ultimately, he'd like to see the city retain enough players to resurrect all the old PHL programs.

"Then we'll again see a shift in power," he predicts.

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