The Public High League once dominated the local gridiron scene, and suburban districts were perennial doormats. Now it's the other way around. Ever wonder why?

The ball is at the one-yard line. It's third down. The Webster Groves Statesmen, in front of a home crowd at Hixson Middle School, trail the Jefferson City Jays by seven points with just under ten minutes left in the first half.

It's the first Friday in October, the first night this fall that's truly felt like football weather. The lights above the stadium give the field an unnatural glow. A group of teenagers, in the front row of the bleachers near the 30-yard line, tease another kid, tossing his black-and-orange Webster Groves cap among themselves as he vainly reaches for it.

Darrell Jackson, the Statesmen's senior quarterback, takes the snap from center and fakes a handoff to his tailback. As the two teams collide at the line of scrimmage, Jackson makes an abrupt turn to his left and scrambles for the corner of the end zone. It's just a one-yard run, but it seems to take forever, despite Jackson's burst of speed once he makes his cut. The crowd holds its collective breath, then erupts as Jackson's feet cross the goal line just ahead of the Jeff City safety.

Mark Gilliland
Darrell Jackson (left), the area's top-rated prospect, lives in St. Louis but attends Webster Groves High, where he's coached by Cliff Ice
Mark Gilliland
Darrell Jackson (left), the area's top-rated prospect, lives in St. Louis but attends Webster Groves High, where he's coached by Cliff Ice

Webster Groves scores twice after halftime and takes a 20-13 lead into the fourth quarter against the bigger Jeff City team, mostly on the strength of Jackson's arm. But the defense wilts, giving up 21 points in the last twelve minutes, and Jeff City squeaks by, 34-26. Jackson's stats, though, are stellar: 88 rushing yards, 261 passing, and four touchdowns. And the nonconference loss, Webster Groves' first of the season, won't hurt the squad's chance to defend its Class 5 state title.

After the game, when the lights go down and the crowd clears out, Jackson has a longer commute home than most of his teammates. He leaves the upwardly mobile enclave of Webster Groves and heads back into St. Louis, to his parents' home on a street that has been blocked off by the city to keep out drug traffic, a street pocked with vacant lots and condemned apartment buildings.

Jackson is one of 10,000 African-American students who live inside the city limits but attend school in predominantly white schools in St. Louis County. He's also one of the hundreds of city students who play football in suburban school districts. For Jackson, who started going to Webster Groves schools in seventh grade, it has turned out well: Widely touted as the top high school player in the metro area, he's being recruited by several Division I colleges, including the University of Missouri and the University of Illinois. ESPN ranks him the seventeenth-best quarterback in the nation.

But Jackson's success comes at a price. And for the past twenty years, the city's Public High League has been paying it.

From the 1960s through the '80s, the Public High League dominated St. Louis-area football. Lawrence Walls, who retired in 1998, presided over a dynasty at Sumner High School, beginning in 1971. Only Bob Shannon's East St. Louis Senior High program in Illinois rivaled Sumner during Walls' reign, as the Bulldogs won state titles in 1973, 1982, 1990 and 1991 and made it to the championship game five other times between '74 and '89. Beaumont consistently challenged Sumner for the city championship, while teams from McKinley, Soldan and Cleveland also won PHL titles. All those schools produced dozens of players who went on to successful college and pro careers -- the list of stars is headed with names like Lorenzo Brinkley Sr., who starred at Beaumont in the '60s and then at Missouri, and Demetrious Johnson, who played at Soldan and Mizzou before going on to the NFL. On Friday nights, PHL games were raucous, celebratory events, with games held at either Soldan, Gateway or the old Southwest High -- the only schools in the city with fields at the time. Hundreds of students, parents and alumni filled the stands, dressed in team colors. School bands provided vibrant halftime shows, and almost every PHL matchup was a cross-town rivalry.

Nowadays a city championship -- not a state title or even a playoff berth -- is the best a PHL team can hope for. Sumner's 1991 state champs were the last city team to make the finals. Last year's PHL co-champions, Beaumont and Cleveland, with records of 6-4 and 6-5, respectively, failed to make the playoffs. So far this year, PHL schools have a combined record of 3-17 against non-conference opponents. Of the top senior prospects in the metro area picked by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the beginning of the season, only one plays for a PHL team -- and that player, Vashon wide receiver William Franklin, is being recruited by colleges for his basketball skills as much as for his pass-catching ability. Only seven of the original eleven schools in the PHL still field teams. Many teams don't even play at the home fields that have been built in the past two decades; each team in the league plays at least one of its home games this year at Gateway Tech on McRee Avenue in south St. Louis. Beaumont, located on Natural Bridge Avenue in north St. Louis, and Cleveland (in south St. Louis) play their entire home schedules at Gateway.

Next Page »