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

The controversy over recruiting isn't limited to suburban schools' trolling the city for athletes. There's also the public-private schism, with public schools accusing private schools of soliciting eighth-graders to attend their institutions. The private school has the advantage of not having an attendance zone, meaning that it can accept students from anywhere, not just a defined area.

Grawer has seen several sides of this. "Public schools are accusing the private schools of recruiting kids, yet public schools accuse other public schools because kids live in one district and go to another," says Grawer. "When I was recruiting for St. Louis University, I'd go visit a kid's house thinking he lived in this particular public-school district, and he lived in another district yet was going to (a different) school."

Walls himself has been accused of recruiting city athletes who live in other schools' attendance zones. In 1991, published reports had Walls recruiting Albert Thomas, who was in Southwest High School's area, to switch to Sumner. Walls denies doing that or ever recruiting a student, but he admits students may have used somebody else's address -- an aunt, cousin or friend -- to attend Sumner. "They do it all over the city," he admits. "They do it every year. Every year kids use different addresses to go to schools they want to go to."

Be it private vs. public, city vs. county or even public vs. public within the same district, recruiting any elementary student for any school is against the rules. "They're not supposed to be recruiting athletes," says George Blase, assistant executive director of the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA). "They can go to the games, but they're not supposed to be talking to the athletes. They're not to recruit students for athletic purposes. That's a no-no."

Blase has heard the talk about suburban schools' recruiting city kids. Blase says even telling a student to put one particular school at the top of his list of three suburban schools he would want to transfer to would be against MSHSAA guidelines. This school year, the MSHSAA has formed investigative commitees to respond to written complaints from member schools. Earlier this year, Chaminade was placed on probation for a recruiting violation.

But because there is seldom Polaroid proof of an actual violation occurring, or no one willing to document and testify to such an event, the accusations linger and healthy suspicions mutate into borderline paranoia. Grawer contends that coaches have trouble living with an adolescent's decision. "What it gets down to is we, as coaches, sometimes can't realize that kids, parents, families make choices for reasons that we just can't accept," Grawer says. "It's possible that a city kid says, or the mother and father of the kid say, 'I'm not going to allow my kid to be in this environment where there's guns and shootings, so I'm sending him to the deseg program.'"

The voluntary-transfer program's Uchitelle says choices are made for a variety of reasons. "Often kids make choices based on a neighbor or a friend who says, 'I want you to go here, I want you to go there, this is a good place to be.' I've done a study on choice, and often that's how the choice is made," Uchitelle says. "They have to apply, but somebody has told them about it."

Even though Sumner's Walls complains about the effects of deseg, he's not whining or stomping sour grapes. "My philosophy is, if you don't want to play for me, you can't play for me," says Walls. "I'm not going to cut you any slack. I'm going to do it the way I do it. I'm going to raise all kind of hell for you. You genuinely have to want to play for Sumner High School in order to play here. If you're betwixt and between, and you might want to play at Pattonville or you might want to play for Sumner, you're going to end up in Pattonville, because you're going to feel like we're really on your case. If you really want to play here, then you can understand what we're doing."

That said, Walls still links the decline of the PHL to deseg. "Deseg has killed the city's athletic programs," he says. "The end of deseg would be an automatic rejuvenation of the PHL. The kids, the athletes, will have to come home. Once that happens, you'll see these teams again with 40 or 50 players on the varsity."

Grambling in the Ville
Back in the early '70s, when the desegregation suit had barely been filed and his teams had those 40 or 50 players, Walls sat down and wrote a letter to Louisiana. Because he wanted to be a good football coach, he decided to learn from the best. "When I first started in high school, I had seen Grambling play on television," Walls says. "I was fascinated. When I came to high school, I decided I wanted to be like Eddie Robinson at Grambling. So I wrote him a letter, and he called me on the phone and told me he'd be glad to have us come down." For four straight springs, Walls and a few assistant coaches took a week of educational leave to go on their own pilgrimage to the football equivalent of Mecca -- the northern Louisiana town of Grambling, where Robinson became the winningest coach in college-football history.

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