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

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.

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