Captain of the football team at Wilson High School can be an inglorious position these days: Alphonso Tyler scours the halls of the Northwest Washington school, buttonholing big guys to ask, please, won't you consider going out for the team.
These are tough times for inner-city high school football. While the sport booms in suburban areas and retains its dominance in rural America, public schools in many of the country's largest cities are struggling to attract fans, find coaches or even field teams.
Spingarn High School in Northeast had to forfeit four games this fall because its team didn't have enough players. Coach Michael Johnson finally scraped together a squad of 25 players, but the Spingarn roster is down by more than half since 1984. At Coolidge High in Northwest, only 40 students came out for football this year, a sharp drop from the 60 to 80 students who usually compete, said athletic director Arthur Riddle.
Citywide, participation in football and all other scholastic sports except basketball has dropped significantly in the past few years, said Otto Jordan, supervisor of athletics for the school system. Attendance at games in the District's Interhigh league also has plummeted; while many schools once drew 2,000 or more fans to each game, several are now lucky to attract 300 to home games.
When Johnson helped coach several championship teams at Roosevelt High in the 1970s, crowds often topped 5,000 and the team routinely carried 80 or more players.
Those days seem long ago, Johnson said. "A lot of our students don't have the interest in athletics that they once did," he said. "Kids today don't get to be children. They're too busy working jobs. They have to grow up too early."
"A few years ago, we would draw 1,200 to 1,800 to games all the time," Riddle said. "We'd consider it good now if we get 200. The students are more interested in a new BMW or high-fashion clothes than in sports."
Washington is not alone. In New York, Chicago and many other large cities, players and fans are increasingly scarce.
Many Chicago public schools now field teams of 25, 27 and 30 players. Even traditional powerhouse Chicago Vocational, alma mater of many professional football players, has seen its roster drop from 65 eight years ago to 47 today, said coach John Potocki.
In New York, where one high school dropped football this fall, "kids don't want to devote the six or seven days a week it takes to be on a team," said Allen Leibowitz, principal of New Utrecht High in Brooklyn and football commissioner of the Public Schools Athletic League.
"The city has been pouring money into football, but with so many single-parent families, there's no one pushing that kid to get on the field. It's a national problem."
In every city, there are exceptions to the gridiron difficulties. The District's H.D. Woodson High School, the only Interhigh team ranked among the region's top squads, regularly attracts 2,000 or more fans to games that feature a full complement of cheerleaders and other boosters. But even those numbers pale next to the 5,000 to 7,000 attendance figures reported routinely in Fairfax County.
Coaches, educators and school board members in the District and around the country agree there are several reasons for urban football's hard times: First and foremost, work. While many students in suburban schools hold after-school jobs, inner-city youths face far greater pressure to help make ends meet at home. As the middle class fled inner cities and many urban middle-class residents chose Catholic or private schools, the public school population became increasingly poor.
"Just about all my players -- the few that I do have -- work," said Spingarn's Johnson. "Last week, my wife and I went to a meeting at 10 p.m. in Springfield, Va., and the maintenance guy in the building turned out to be one of my students. He was going to finish work at 5 a.m. and then come to school. That's what we're facing."
Even students who don't have to work choose to. "They just don't have time for recreation," said Horace Fleming, coach at Wilson High. "Their values have changed. They have a lot more things pulling at them and the big thing is the almighty dollar. A lot of them are really into fashion and getting the money to buy clothes or a car."
"We're kind of a materialistic school and some of the kids here are more interested in getting all the right clothes than in playing football," said Wilson captain Tyler, a senior linebacker and offensive tackle. While interest in football has been declining for several years, the District felt the crunch most keenly beginning last fall, when new academic rules took effect. To participate in any extracurricular activities now, students must maintain a 2.0 or C average.
The full effect of the rule is hard to determine. Wilson lost 10 of 50 players to the rule last year, Fleming said. Based on discussions with principals, school board member Eugene Kinlow (At Large) estimates that District school teams lost 30 percent of their players to the C-average rule. Kinlow had to estimate because he said he has been unable to get the D.C. school administration to release exact numbers.
"I'm going to keep hounding them until I get it," said Kinlow, who since last spring has repeatedly asked administrators for a report on the rule's effects. Athletics supervisor Jordan said he has no such numbers.
Kinlow said the falloff rate caused by the rule will be temporary; tutorial programs aimed at boosting student performance will make more athletes eligible in future years. Frank Parks, athletic director at Spingarn, said coaches support the 2.0 rule but wish it had not been thrust on students all at once.
For now, students say, the rule's impact is devastating. "It's hurt a lot of people, like moi, for example," said Wesley Bowman, a senior at Cardozo High who spent a recent Saturday morning watching the Clerks lose to Coolidge. "I was going to go out for the team, but I have a D average." Like many other students, Bowman agreed that schools ought to require academic performance before allowing students on teams, even if it means he cannot play. Through reputation and recruiting, Catholic and other private schools have taken advantage of the limited funding of public school athletics, luring away many of the better players.
"We never even see some of the better players because they never even come here," Riddle said. Catholic schools often offer earlier training, while the District has no junior varsity teams.
Students who leave the public schools find newer equipment, better fields and more impressive trappings such as trophies, bands and uniforms. In Chicago, Mount Carmel High School, a Catholic school, has an enviable football program despite its inner-city South Side location. Coach Frank Lenti said he has 68 varsity, 55 sophomore and 70 freshman-level players who benefit from first-class equipment paid for in part by parent fund-raisers who collect $30,000 a year.
District students play in what Wilson senior Lorne Prince called "dust bowls." Only four of the 11 regular high schools have fields equipped with lights. Jordan said his requests for field improvements have been pending for "years and years."
Each District high school gets only $5,000 to cover equipment, uniforms and other basics for its football program; some suburban systems double that. In addition, most suburban and Catholic schools supplement their budgets with gate receipts and money raised by volunteer parents.
While the District has a few active parent groups, their efforts bring in far less money than many suburban schools collect. "We try," said Percell Arrington, a Coolidge parent. "But the schools don't have enough equipment or uniforms and that makes it hard to get the kids to want to play."
Spingarn coach Johnson said it is unrealistic to expect large crowds at Interhigh games because "very simply, our product is not overall as good as the programs in the surrounding counties. It's not that exciting for fans to watch two weak teams or even one strong one against a weak one."
Nor do many coaches find it exciting to be paid less money to work with fewer assistants in more difficult settings than their suburban counterparts. In Washington, each school has a head coach, who makes $1,450, and one assistant, who gets $700. In contrast, Montgomery County pays head coaches $3,250 and allows each school four assistants, each of whom makes $2,800. Nationally, high school football retains its status as a magnet for teen-age boys, 980,000 of whom compete in scholastic games, according to the National High School Athletic Coaches Association. But while the sport's health in many areas is clear, some inner-city coaches are asking basic questions about interest in football.
"Some kids are just giving up on sports because it doesn't offer the immediate gratification of a job," Wilson's Fleming said. "Sports is long-range, learning how to get along with others."
The worries about a new generation of jaded children extend to youth recreation organizers such as Calvin Woodland, who runs a sports program for 7- to 15-year-olds in Southeast Washington.
"I've had a football team for 15 years, and for the past two years, I haven't been able to field a team," he said. "There's no interest. Organized sports in the inner city is dying out. You'll find kids playing football in a parking lot, but bring them to an organized situation and they don't want any of it."
Woodland said children are repelled by the rules and routines that come with league or school sports. "They see their heroes, the drug dealers, on the street with their BMWs and $350 sweatsuits and all that jewelry and they know those people don't follow any rules," he said. "Playing with me or high school, there are expectations. But kids don't want anyone telling them what to do."
Students and coaches say dampened school spirit and lower attendance at games stem in part from the drug culture, which teaches children that it is cool to stay up late and decidedly uncool to get involved in school activities.
Some coaches reject that argument. "People say the kids won't come out because they're on the corner doing drugs," Chicago's Potocki said. "I don't buy that. That's an excuse and excuses are for losers. The kids will play if we set tough rules and prove to them that we can be the route to college."
In Washington, athletics supervisor Jordan, whose office walls are lined with team photographs from the 1950s and 1960s and none more recent, said he has no way to gauge student interest in football. "I haven't done a survey, so I don't know anything about it," he said.
The decline in District football is especially disheartening to coaches who believe strongly not only in the value of athletic competition, but in the power of sports to pull many inner-city children out of the cycle of poverty.
"The bottom line is college," said Coolidge athletic director Riddle. "One college, Norfolk State, offered 10 of my championship team members full scholarships last year. That is still a big help to these students."
"For so many of my kids, if they didn't have football, they wouldn't have anything," Leibowitz said. "For the kids we're missing, it's sad. High school should be the best time of their lives."