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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.
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