Tory Russell has been roaming the halls and cafeteria of Sumner High School in a maroon Bulldogs hoodie, a laptop open in his hands. He has one question for every boy he finds: “Wanna play football?”
Russell, an assistant coach, is fervently trying to save St. Louis’ winningest high-school football program by getting kids signed up to play. Right now, the Bulldogs football team doesn’t have enough players to take the field. That means there’s a good chance this storied football program has played its last game.
“We need 30 to 35 kids signed up saying that they’re going to play football next year, committed, and we want to make sure they’re academically eligible by the end of the semester,” said Russell.
The coach, who played football at Sumner himself and graduated from the school in 2002, still thinks there’s a fighting chance.
St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams believes the odds are long.
Based on the enrollment and academic data he has on Sumner, Adams said he doesn’t think it’s possible to find enough eligible kids. So right now, the district plans to eliminate the program.
“If in the next week or two weeks, if you can get with me and our numbers could be the same numbers, we will look at a possibility of doing something different," Adams said. “But that is highly unlikely based on what I know.”
Adams has met with Russell and other alumni concerned about the football program, as well as the future of the school, the oldest for black students in the Western U.S.
Sumner’s history dates back to 1875, and for a long stretch of that, its football team was a powerhouse not only among other St. Louis high schools but the state. From the 1970s through the early 1990s, they won their district 20 times and made it to the state championship game nine times, winning four of them. No other public high school in the city has won a state championship in football.
“The value in being able to put on the maroon and white and understand what that meant, to wear those colors, it’s immeasurable,” said Eric Oliver, who graduated from Sumner in 1980.
Those were the glory days. Things are different today. It’s been a decade since the Bulldogs won a playoff game. And they’ve dropped down in division class twice as the student population gets smaller and smaller.
Only about 290 students attend Sumner this year, down from more than 1,000 two decades ago. That decline has not only made it harder to find football players, but the school has had to eliminate other activities and clubs.
Yet to drop football is a completely different ballgame.
“It's very hard to get a grasp on the fact that they even thinking about disbanding football at Sumner High School, period,” said former coach Richard Perry.
Perry coached football at Sumner for nearly four decades, much of that time under legendary coach Lawrence Walls in the 1980s and early 90s.
“It was a part of our community,” he said.
The alumni are working with the district to come up with a plan to improve academics and attendance at the school, as well as boost enrollment. Sumner is one of three attendance-based high schools left in SLPS, so many students elect to attend magnet schools in other parts of the city. And The Ville neighborhood surrounding Sumner has lost most of its population.
To some alumni, the bigger picture is keeping Sumner open, which educated many famous black St. Louisans along with producing great football teams. Without football though, alumnus Byron Price said recruiting kids to come to Sumner will be a harder task.
“It meant something to come to Sumner High School,” Price said. “That history had already been there, we just didn’t know it all.”
A chip on the shoulder
Football just looms large at Sumner. Past football champions look down from giant team portraits as players walk into the gym and weight room.
“It put a major chip on your shoulder knowing that you have to play behind people that just was dominant,” said DeMarko Smith, a junior who was the team's captain last fall.
If there aren’t enough players at Sumner next year, district officials have a backup plan. Superintendent Adams has said the remaining players can join Soldan High School’s team.
For Smith, playing football is the goal.
“Gotta do what you have to do,” Smith said. “I’m pushing forward to play better next year.”
Yet for alumni, a combined Sumner-Soldan team under Soldan’s mascot and colors has been harder to imagine. Thousands of former students show up each year for the decades-long rivalry between Sumner and Vashon. District officials have offered to hold the game at Sumner for homecoming next fall.
Will it be the same to watch the Soldan Tigers play the Vashon Wolverines in The Ville? The former players and coaches gathered for a recent alumni event responded with a chorus of no’s.
Audio of the Sumner homecoming football game in the radio story is courtesy of WYPR’s Out of the Blocks podcast.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney
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