Friday, October 24, 2008

The mighty are falling

For the length of my entire life, plus one year, the pride of Houston's Third Ward has qualified for the Texas high school football playoffs.

Seems like that state-record streak might finally come to an end this season. This is sad for a number of reasons, chief among them that the era of title-contending, inner-city football teams could be over.

In the mid-1980s, Yates had more than 3,000 students walking its hallways on a aidly basis. Now, its enrollment number isn’t even half that. When the University Interscholastic League collected enrollment figures for the most recent realignment in February, Yates reported an enrollment of 1,325.

“In the ’80s, you had the whole community of Third Ward booming,” McKinney said. “Lots of families lived there and the kids took pride in going to Yates. Now you have open enrollment in HISD and there are a lot of kids in Yates’ zone that don’t attend Yates.”

Once upon a time, Yates was one of the flagship football programs in the Houston area. In 1985, Yates produced the first all-black team to win the Texas state football championship - blanking fabled powerhouse Odessa Permian 37-0. Rick Telander, who briefly touched on Yates in his book titled "The Hundred Yard Lie," watched a tape of the game and said Yates "crushed (Permian) the way a steamroller crushes a pair of sunglasses."

That was the last time a Houston public school - in the 7th-largest public school system in the country - won a state football title. In 1992, Yates was also the last HISD school to advance to a state championship game.

Unbelievable, right? But the shift has been going on for years, with neighborhood kids - mostly those in Third Ward - taking advantage of magnet programs and others moving out of those neighborhoods completely to live in the suburbs. That transition has played itself out on the gridiron, with suburban and single-school rural districts dominating in the state's two largest classifications. The last truly inner-city school to win a Texas state championship in football was probably Aldine in 1990.

But, for schools like Yates, state titles aren't even a realistic goal at the moment. The Mighty Lions are merely hoping to win their second game of the season today, which inches them a tad closer to preserving their playoff streak. That's quite a fall for a program whose alumni includes NFL stars like Dexter Manley, Santana Dotson and John Roper, among others. (Not to mention, other prestigious former students like Phylicia Rashad, Debbie Allen and Roland Martin).

"The players know the pressure is on," says the Houston Chronicle.

Maybe. Yates' glorious history has nothing to do with its disappointing present. And the future doesn't look much better.

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