The author won a national SPJ award for coverage of disparities in regional football programs
by Kaitlin Sharkey
Friday night football means packed stands, marching bands, students and parents cheering on the local high school team.
This isn’t exactly the atmosphere at Custer stadium.
The concrete bleachers are scattered with fans as players take the field. The sounds that usually accompany a football game are silenced to only a couple cheers.
Cleats kick up dirt and dust on a field that was once covered in green grass. White lines are crooked and barely visible.
A ten-minute drive across town reveals a completely different scene. A Friday night game at Greendale High School is packed with parents, students, and fans. The parking lot is full and the sounds of the band and student cheers can be heard from blocks away.
There’s not an empty seat in the house. Huge cheerleading squads, dance teams, and middle school kids pack the track surrounding the field. It seems that the whole suburb is in attendance.
A sharp whistle blow signals another drill in the dusty field behind Milwaukee’s Riverside University High School. Helmets and pads smacking together are the soundtrack to most afternoon practices for the Riverside Tigers.
Standing in a swirl of dust is head coach Pat Wagner. He lines up his receivers for a catching drill while two other coaches prepare the offense and defense. Ask him what’s special about his team and his answer is simple.
“It’s just the kids.”
Coach Wagner is in his 16th season at Riverside and has shown why city conference teams can be serious contenders.
“Just hold them accountable for their actions. Practice time equals playing time.”
His players line the sidelines in mismatched practice gear. Footballs are the only equipment on the field.
Most football programs have challenges, but when it comes to city conference teams, the challenges are magnified. Facilities and equipment are substandard and a lack of attendance and support can make an impact.
“It would be easier for us if we had a few more stadiums, if we had a stadium closer to us then we wouldn’t have to travel as much,” Wagner says.
Not a single home game is played at Riverside University. The idea of “home field advantage” doesn’t exist. The team has been able to use the new Shorewood stadium sometimes but has to travel to Pulaski to play home games as well.
Getting parents involved has also been a challenge for Wagner.
“Parents don’t care. It’s sad, but some parents just don’t care.”
For a number of reasons many parents have been unable to provide the same type of support many suburban schools receive. Off-campus facilities, school choice, and other factors inhibit parental involvement.
Despite these challenges, the drive and passion for the game pushes players past any adversity they encounter.
If you talk to one of the four captains on the Riverside football team, they will tell you football is a major part of their lives. They strive to balance football, school, work, and home life. For senior Jaree Collins, the busy schedule is something he has gotten used to.
“I go to practice, then right home and gotta do homework, gotta get to it, I try to always get good grades and put academics before sports. Being a role model is very important to me,” he says.
As a member of the National Honor Society, a volunteer, and a cashier at a local grocery store, Collins encourages his fellow teammates to get involved.
Another leader on the team, junior Russell Collins, feels the Tigers are more of a family than anything.
“They’re just like my brothers, if they get in trouble I’m gonna help them out. I’ll bleed for them, sweat for them, cry for them,” he says.
That sense of family plays a key role in the lives of the players. Not every player has the best family life and support system and Wagner feels he has to step in when it comes to those situations at home. Some families are single-parent homes and struggle financially. Some kids are left to take care of themselves at an early age. If a family is struggling, football isn’t a major concern.
“Just spending time with the kid and talking to him. With a hundred kids, some have dads and some don’t, it’s about trying to find that time for each one,” he says.
There are times when talking isn’t enough.
“You can always tell because the kid doesn’t wanna go home,” he says. “If it’s little things like the kid doesn’t have toothpaste or isn’t eating, there are things at school we do, but I’ll go and help the kid out with the basic necessities of life. You can tell after a couple days if a kid is looking really disheveled.”
When coaching a group of student-athletes, the student part has to be the most important. Wagner knows the value of good grades and the affect it has on the future of his players.
“I just push that colleges aren’t gonna take a kid unless they have a 2.5,” he says.
The team holds study tables each week to make sure the players are on track with their homework. There are no exceptions when it comes to poor academic performance.
“If the kid didn’t get grades, he didn’t play or come out,” Wagner says.
Playing on Both Fields
Jeff Wallack is the head football coach at suburban Whitnall High School in Greenfield. Before starting with the Falcons he coached at Milwaukee Hamilton for six seasons. Hamilton was a struggling program and Wallack had his work cut out for him.
One of the first changes he made was academic expectations. At the start of the 2008 season he cut any player with a GPA below a 2.0. In his first year, 39 kids were cut and he was left with 34 players on his varsity team.
That season the team made it to the playoffs.
In 2010, only seven kids were cut because of academics. The message was getting across. “We established a winning culture, and we stressed that academics were important,” he says.
According to Wallack the key to success in a city football program is organization and discipline. “These kids are just dying for structure, they want that organization in their lives,” he says.
When Wallack took over the Whitnall program in 2012 a 6.5 million dollar football stadium was under construction and the challenges were far different than at Hamilton. The first difference was the sense of community at Whitnall.
“Every Friday night these kids are all hanging out, staying at someone’s house doing what teenagers do, that sense of community, you don’t have that in the city,” Wallack says.
Forty-three Whitnall players showed up to the first day of morning workouts for Wallack. At Hamilton, the transportation issue made attendance more challenging.
“If I had a 6 A.M workout in the city, some players are on the bus for an hour and a half. They would have to be up by 4 to get to the school on time,” he says.
Parent support is also very different at Whitnall. Parents host team dinners before games, work concession stands, sell merchandise and help raise money. Friday night at Whitnall, the stadium is packed with families and program supporters.
Building a Program
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Prep Editor Mark Stewart has been following high school football in Milwaukee for 20 years and attributes lack of attendance in the city to lack of interest.
“It doesn’t grasp the kids as much. I don’t know why, but city basketball games are an 180 degree difference,” he says. “If you got teams like Riverside, everyone loves a winner, maybe that would bring people around more. People just aren’t buying the product.”
When it comes to performance, the majority of city teams can’t compete with suburban schools. Stewart says there are a couple of contributing factors to the lack of success in the city.
“In the suburban programs, youth football is tailored to what the high school does. The youth programs run similar offensive and defensive schemes so when you get to a high school level, what they’re running isn’t new, the kids can go out there and perform,” he says.
In a suburban setting, the majority of kids grow up in the same neighborhood and they know which high school they will attend early on. The same isn’t true in a city setting. City players may live in one area of the city and attend one middle school and end up in a high school halfway across the city. There isn’t the same amount of consistency. If a boy grows up playing youth football tailored to what the high school team does, he is better prepared when it’s time for him to suit up.
In a city as big as Milwaukee it’s ironic that another major issue is a lack of players.
“There are enough numbers there to have more kids out there for the program,” Stewart says. With football you really need those bodies. They still thrive in basketball but with football you really need the numbers, and thats what really hurts the program.”
Stewart also points out that if students see a winning team they are more likely to become involved. Success comes from experience. The longer a student stays on the team, the more experienced he becomes. If you can get a jump start and get freshman and sophomores to join the team and stay, success is more likely to follow.
Another major roadblock to success is outside influences. Wagner says the biggest challenge is keeping the players focused.
“Just dealing with all the distractions, some kids have to work, some kids [have issues at] home, could be academic stuff, parental support is a big one,” he says.
Unlike players at suburban schools, the majority of Milwaukee players don’t live near school. They sometimes travel across the city to get to school, practice, and games. MPS and city transportation give the students bus tickets. Partnerships like this help eliminate the transportation expense for some students.
Another major difference between city schools and suburban is the amount of money in the program. The more money a program has, the more likely it is to achieve success.
When it comes to Milwaukee Public Schools, extracurriculars and sports aren’t primary concerns. Alan Borsuk is a senior law fellow at Marquette University and a long-time reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel covering education in MPS.
“I believe I have been to more MPS school board meetings than anyone and I have never heard the mention of sports. It’s an island of its own,” Borsuk says.
As far as funding goes, Borsuk says MPS lies somewhere in the middle. The majority of the district’s discussions are spent talking about the opening and closings of schools. They focus on academic improvement and issues concerning safety. Sports and music programs seem to fall to the wayside.
In addition to lack of district funding, there aren’t as many alumni donations as in suburban schools.
In 2007 Milwaukee businessman Sheldon B. Lubar donated 500,00 dollars to Whitefish Bay High School to help pay for the renovation of the school’s athletic field and stadium. With his donation came criticism of how MPS was being run.
In a 2007 interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Lubar said, “MPS is "structured to fail" and has "a clumsy bureaucracy.” The district should be broken up into smaller units, the size of something such as the Whitefish Bay district. Districts that size can be more accountable and more focused.”
The difference in donations creates a disparity in facilities; however, great facilities don’t make great players.
The Game Plan
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Preps Editor Mark Stewart says the winning combination is in the numbers.
“In football you gotta have the numbers, maybe if they have a little taste of success people will come out of the woodwork and start saying it’s cool to play football,” he says.
That taste of success is something Riverside has enjoyed for a number of seasons. Last season Riverside had its best playoff run in five years advancing to the semi-final game. Riverside was a Cinderella story, knocking off suburban opponents like Homestead and Sussex Hamilton.
Whether they have post-season success or not, Riverside’s regular season record is a reflection of success as well. They have beaten teams by more than 50 points and ended the 2012 season 6-4 overall, while averaging 36.2 points per game.
Coach Wagner’s Tigers are proof that a city conference team can be successful. A multi-million dollar stadium, matching warm-ups, brand new equipment, or a packed house every Friday night don’t make a winning team.
“You wanna nurture the talent that’s there, period,” Wagner says. “Intelligence can come from anywhere, talent can come from anywhere, don’t just throw it away because a kid doesn’t have money at home, but you gotta give every kid the opportunity.”
When it’s all said and done, Wagner is more concerned about the men he’s made after the season is over and encourages each player “just to be a good citizen, so when they leave here they understand that it’s up to them whether or not they reach the goals they want to get to.”