LOSING THE NUMBERS GAME
The bottom fell out for the Manassas High School football team last Friday as Mitchell whipped them 81-0.
And the season has just begun. Only 18 players, barely half the team, showed up for practice Monday on the old baseball outfield that serves as the school's football field. The barren infield is hard as concrete. There isn't a goalpost or yardline marker in sight.
"I just want you to know I appreciate you all coming out here to practice," Coach Danny Pogue tells his players before leading them in a prayer and splitting them up into groups by position. The backs work on footwork and pitchouts. The receivers run pass patterns over the remnants of second base. The linemen Ñ all three of them Ñ take turns blocking each other.
Manassas, which opened in 1899, has heart, guts, and history. Entertainer Isaac Hayes and school board member Sara Lewis are among its distinguished graduates. But it has a serious numbers problem both on the football field and in the classrooms, with a total enrollment of about 350 students.
For incoming schools superintendent Carol Johnson and the school board, the looming question is whether to close Manassas or try to save it by building a new school. On the one hand, Manassas is just minutes from downtown, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and the government-subsidized Hope Six housing development that will soon replace the demolished public-housing projects on Danny Thomas. On the other hand, it is directly across the road from a long-abandoned Firestone factory and acres of buckling concrete and an industrial wasteland.
Assistant principal Glen Chapman has been at Manassas for 29 years. But even when he arrived, the school had only 800 students, including middle-schoolers. At its peak, Manassas had nearly 2,000 students who filled the current building as well as an annex torn down several years ago. Students look at the pictures of the old campus in Chapman's office and barely recognize their school.
"Kids in this neighborhood need this school," he says. "Without it they would be lost. I would rather see them whittle down the mega-schools. I know most of the kids here by name already."
Manassas loses students to other city schools with more courses and extracurricular activities, but it has little advantages too. Last week a girl asked Chapman how to get to a class. Instead of giving her directions, he walked her there himself.
"I would hate to see this school closed," he says. "There is a point where you have to close a school, but I don't know what it is."
What he does know is that Manassas has clout on the school board and alumni chapters in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. His hope is that the board will follow through on plans to build a new school, which could cost $25 million or more.
"A few years ago, Mitchell High School was in the same boat we are, but they got a new building and have 1,200 kids now," he says. He admits, however, that the growth came at the expense of older schools like Westside.
Westside lost 71-0 to Carver last week. "When we play Westside," Chapman says half-joking, "it ought to be a good game."
In the football locker room, Coach Pogue isn't laughing. His team was 1-9 in each of the last two seasons and had not won in 30 outings before that. Handsome, young, and physically fit, Pogue doubles as waterboy and equipment manager. On the Saturday after the 81-0 loss, he called a practice, but only eight boys showed up.
"After 81-0, what can you say?" he asks. "They're getting beat up. If the game is 85 percent mental, then these kids are getting beat up. I think we could be a real good team if our kids would accept the fact of having a program."
Manassas has some athletes, just not enough of them. The running backs are husky and run through drills with agility and speed. But they have to play the entire game. Sophomore quarterback Derrick Vaughn, 6-2 and 195 pounds, was a star on his undefeated middle-school team and is used to being on the other end of lopsided games.
"No sir, I hope it don't happen again," he says with a smile as he lofts 45-yard spirals. "I couldn't go to sleep after that loss."
His teammates who have showed up for practice are equally determined.
"The people who ain't here might be discouraged," says a smiling Alexie Smith.
Assistant coach Bo Phillips exhorts them to stay positive.
"We're going to turn it around!" he shouts.
"Hope so," comes a tentative voice from the back of the little huddle.
"Ain't no hopin' about it," Phillips snaps. "We're going to do it. You're going to see a different ballclub, I guarantee it. You're going to be proud to be Manassas."