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The system Robinson taught him has served Walls and Sumner well, but behind the system and the coach are the players. One earlier team Walls waxes nostalgic about is his 1982 state-championship team, which featured Anthony Stafford, Lorenzo McCline and Theophilus Murphy. Stafford went on to star at the University of Oklahoma during the Barry Switzer days; McCline played at Purdue. "If Theophilus broke the line, you could forget it -- he was going to score. If Lorenzo broke the line, he was going to score. And Stafford -- I mean, hell, if you got him the ball, it was darn near like he was going to score. We just had speed."
The current mainstay of the Sumner program is Tyron Griffin. Sometimes, in spite of the exodus to the suburbs, good news arrives on your doorstep. "When I first became aware of him, he was standing on the wall watching us practice. He did this every day. Every day I would look up and this kid is standing there watching us practice. I thought he was a student here at Sumner. I said to him, 'You come out here and watch every day -- you're big enough; why don't you come out here and play?' He said, 'Coach Walls, I'm still in grade school. I go to Turner.' I couldn't believe it. I said, 'No, you don't, you go to Sumner. Man, I see you every day.' He said, 'No, I don't.'"
Griffin has started since he was a freshman at Sumner. Griffin's power is evident, but his speed is harder to appreciate. In an important PHL game on Oct. 30 against Vashon, Sumner, ahead 16-14, had the ball on its own 10-yard line with 6:07 left in the game when Griffin broke to the right. He made it through the line and sprinted 90 yards for a touchdown. As he entered the end zone, the clock read 5:52. That means he covered 90 yards in 15 seconds -- with 11 people trying to stop him.
Walls knows that, with Griffin, longtime assistant coach Richard Perry will have something to build on when Perry takes over next season. That was part of why Walls picked this year instead of last year, when the team was 3-7, to retire. "I enjoy the game," Walls says. "I don't want to get to the point where I don't enjoy the game and I'm just dogging it, just going on and on and on and not enjoying it. I'd rather step down when I'm enjoying the game, when we have some talent. Coach Perry will be starting out with some talent. Don't want to be leaving somebody with nothing."
One last good play
In the end, there was a loss, a lopsided loss. Jefferson City Helias, a miniature Notre Dame, beat Sumner, a miniature Grambling. On the field of Walls' alma mater, Lincoln University, Helias won 35-6. Sumner, uncharacteristically, seemed dysfunctional: missed blocks, botched coverages, sloppy attempted tackles, ineffective offense. There was frustration, disappointment and some anger. And when it was almost over, there was finally -- finally -- a well-executed play by the Bulldogs.
With 2:13 to go in the game, Sumner was losing 35-0. Not much looked good that night. With that much time left in Larry Walls' high-school football coaching career at Sumner, Damon Davis broke through the right side of the line and bolted 57 yards for a touchdown. Score: 35-6. The Bulldogs had scored. They would not be shut out.
The second Davis entered the end zone, Walls turned back to the bench, yelling to no one in particular, or to everyone in particular: "That's the first damn time we get a trap block." The exasperation was evident, and so was the lesson, as the last two minutes of his 28 years as coach at Sumner ticked away. Run the play. Block your man. Do your job. It was a gospel of discipline preached by a man who practiced it, having been diagnosed with diabetes a few years back and keeping to a strict diet that had him lose 50 pounds, dropping to 160 from 210.
The final game was another study in contrasts. Helias had navy-blue jerseys and gold helmets a la Notre Dame. Their band, dressed in blue uniforms, ruffled shirts and gold cummerbunds, repeatedly played "We Will Rock You" (somehow this is not what Freddie Mercury had in mind). After a touchdown, the band played the Notre Dame fight song. The public-address announcers kept announcing fundraising sales to support the private Catholic school's band and athletic teams. Sumner's band didn't make the trip, and its crowd was dwarfed by the hometown Helias turnout.
Then, as if the score weren't enough, the final ignominy was the announcement before the end of the game that the victory meant Helias coach Ray Hentges would win his 250th game. That this would be two victories more than Walls' total was lost on the announcer and the crowd. Helias would go on to win the state Class 4A championship, and Hentges also would retire.
Napoleon "Bo" Williams, the 280-pound tackle on the Bulldogs' '91 team, had made the trip to Jefferson City and was standing near the Sumner bus after the game. He said he noticed that, more than a few times, it seemed that the Helias defense knew what was coming. Williams said that was the downside of staying with the same offense for so many years: Coaches got to know it.