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?

"We're not a policing-type organization," Oakes concludes. "We rely on the schools to monitor themselves, and they do a pretty good job."

If coaches at the school a student is transferring to are found to have exerted undue influence -- by promising a spot in the starting line-up or offering free shoes or equipment -- the school faces sanctions, but ultimately the decision of whether to punish an offending coach lies with the individual school districts, not the MSHSAA. "It goes back to local control," says Rick Kindhart, the MSHSAA's communications director. "We deal with the administration, the administration deals with the coach. That's who the coach works for. The coach is not a member [of the MSHSAA], the school is."

In the past five years, no team in the state has been sanctioned by MSHSAA for recruiting, and only three students have been declared ineligible for transferring for athletic reasons. None of those three students were involved in the local desegregation plan.

Vashon High athletic director Floyd Irons says money gives county schools an unfair edge -- and he's out to change that
Mark Gilliland
Vashon High athletic director Floyd Irons says money gives county schools an unfair edge -- and he's out to change that
Len Buehler, freshman football coach at Lindbergh High School (at right, with head coach Tom Beauchamp), says city schools can no longer compete with their county rivals
Mark Gilliland
Len Buehler, freshman football coach at Lindbergh High School (at right, with head coach Tom Beauchamp), says city schools can no longer compete with their county rivals

That doesn't mean it doesn't happen. "Everybody's doing it," says Brian Simmons, home/school liaison for Pattonville High School and a former football coach there. Simmons acknowledges that the result has hurt the city schools, both athletically and academically, but he argues that the benefits for the students who go to the county are a fair trade. "Is it a bad thing? Yeah," says Simmons. "Is it a good thing? Yeah."

Simmons himself used to recruit -- not for the football team, but for the desegregation program. He set up booths at shopping centers and weekend events to advertise his school district to city students and their parents. Because he was a coach on the football team, he says, coaches and boosters expected him to actively encourage city athletes to come to Pattonville. He says he didn't have to; the district sold itself to city students. Last year 453 city students transferred to the Pattonville district.

"It's not that county schools are taking students out of the city," Simmons argues. "It's voluntary. Parents decide that the county schools have much more to offer."

The disparity in facilities offered by city and county schools is stark. While city schools have always lagged behind their county rivals in terms of money and equipment, the gap has only widened since desegregation. The football stadium at Roosevelt High School was built to hold hundreds of fans who no longer show up for Friday night games. The grass on the field is brown and worn, trampled down to patches of dirt between the hash marks. The grass stretches all the way up to the stands on the north side and to a ratty chain-link fence to the south; a circular path of trodden dirt approximates the expensive 400-meter tracks that surround typical county football fields. The field at Gateway Tech is equally threadbare, worn down by four-times-a-week practices and games on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons.

At Hixson Middle School, where the Webster Groves team practices and plays its home games, the football stadium and practice field are part of a state-of-the-art municipal recreational complex that includes tennis courts and an Olympic-size swimming pool. The stadium has been carved into the side of a hill on the east side of the campus, with metal bleachers on the opposite side for the visitors' fans. The practice field is perched on a hilltop above the stadium, covered with bright green grass and surrounded by towering stands of lights.

Lindbergh's practice field is likewise part of a grand complex, flanked by tennis courts, a soccer field and a 2,000-capacity stadium.

Darrell Jackson's mother chose to send her son to the Webster Groves School District when he was in seventh grade. It wasn't the athletic facilities or the football team's two state championships that persuaded her, he says, even though he'd already shown plenty of talent as a quarterback in the city's Junior Football League. Based on where he lives now, if he'd stayed in the St. Louis public school system Jackson would attend Roosevelt, where the Rough Riders are off to a 1-6 start, following an 0-10 season in 2002.

"I had no idea which middle school I was going to go to," says Jackson, standing on the front porch of his parents' apartment on Chouteau Avenue after practice, wearing sweatpants and slippers. "My mom looked around and thought Hixson was a good place, and I had friends there. I think that's kind of why I'm going out there now."

Despite his size -- six-foot-three and 215 pounds -- Jackson still carries some baby fat, especially in his face. He's polite and soft-spoken, but his seeming gentleness belies his football skills. Last year he passed for 2,072 yards, ran for 1,258 more and accounted for 31 touchdowns as the Statesmen went 10-2. This year, as a senior, he has compiled similarly impressive stats through five games -- 1,305 yards passing, with twelve touchdowns and six interceptions, and 496 yards and ten touchdowns on the ground -- and Webster Groves appears ready to defend its state title.

Jackson's numbers have caught the attention of college scouts. The Post-Dispatch named him the top preseason prospect in the area, and Jackson recognizes that football is his best shot at getting into college. Webster Groves head coach Cliff Ice says Jackson is a good student, but his family couldn't afford to send him to college without financial help. "If I didn't have a football scholarship, it would be hard," says the quarterback. "But I think I would have been able to go. Football just made it easier."

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