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

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.

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