Goal-Line Stand

At the finish of a 28-year career that includes 248 victories and four state titles, Sumner Bulldogs coach Larry Walls takes some parting shots at deseg -- which he claims has decimated the city's once-mighty Public High League

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."

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