Posted: Thursday December 22, 2011 11:55AM ; Updated: Thursday December 22, 2011 11:55AM
Melissa Segura
Melissa Segura>ARCHIVE

Gracemont helps save school by adding football program (cont.)

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Since taking the field for the first time, Gracemont's football team has helped increase enrollment and athletic budget totals.
Since taking the field for the first time, Gracemont's football team has helped increase enrollment and athletic budget totals.
Courtesy of Debra Smith

The next Sunday, as usual, Fullbright attended church. Besides, she thought, it might take divine intervention to pull off the football plan. She had asked about every person that she could think of for help. Or had she?

"Mrs. Fullbright," a familiar voice called out as she exited the church. Gerald McGuire, a Gracemont native, emerged from the flock of congregants and approached her. "You didn't ask me for a donation."

"Gerald, I know your wife was in the hospital," Fullbright started to explain.

"What do you need, Mrs. Fullbright?" he interrupted. "Just tell me what you need."

Fullbright started describing -- oh, what did they call them? A house on stilts was the best that she could muster. Then preacher Tony Nichols, who already volunteered to serve as the play-by-play announcer, snuck up behind her and told McGuire, "she's talking about a press box."

"Roberta, you get the materials and I'll get it built," McGuire said.

Days later, McGuire and a dozen local farmers met to assess what needed to be done. Gracemont's first game against Riverfield Country Day School drew nearer, and preparations remained unfinished. As McGuire ticked off the supply list, farmer after farmer bellowed, "I've got electrical wires in my garage." "I've got the poles you'll need on the farm." "I've got a tractor." A community with no football experience was running a hurry-up offense against time.

Scott was there, too. He'd been instrumental to progress since his proposal, doubling as the bus driver before teaching health, science, and mechanics classes. He monitored the football team's weightlifting session, ran his bus routes for an hour and returned for a two-hour football practice before cutting pipe and using the one paint-can striper until the wee hours of the morning. He lost 25 pounds and left his pregnant wife alone more than either of them would have liked. But as he glanced around, he couldn't shake the sense that the work was worth the sacrifice. There was something bigger, more meaningful, on the horizon. With a week to spare, McGuire and his helpers picked up their tools and went home.

The field was ready.

*****

On Sept. 8, the night of Gracemont's first home game, a line of bumper-to-bumper pickup trucks created what reporters called "Gracemont's first traffic jam" on Highway 281. Fullbright stood at the gate collecting tickets and handing out programs with the 143 names of every donor and volunteer printed on the back. With the onslaught of people funneling through the gate, she hadn't had time to tally the gate receipts, but held her breath that there would be at least $425 dollars to pay the referees.

On the field, spectators who didn't fit into the bleachers -- the ones that Bud Stevens dragged from the city park with his farm equipment -- settled into lawn chairs or on open patches of grass. Scott, ever the shepherd, hung behind his flock of players waiting to break through the butcher-paper sign decorated with footballs that the cheer squad had painted.

Five weeks earlier, at the Lions' first football practice, he asked one player to "hit" another. The boy reached out and slapped the other openhanded. Now, however improbably, they were preparing to play in an actual game.

"They didn't understand zero [about football]," Scott said. "They didn't know how to throw the ball, how to block. They weren't dumb, they just didn't know."

After that first day of practice, Scott drove home wondering how he'd be able to teach his team what a snap count was before its first game. But the boys quickly proved that knowing nothing had benefits. "There were no bad habits to break," he said. "They caught on quicker than any other team I've coached before."

As the last player ran past the cheerleaders and onto the field, taking in the loudest screams that anyone could remember, Scott couldn't be sure that his team would win -- or even compete until the second half given Oklahoma's 45-point mercy rule. But it didn't matter. With nearly every member of the community donning "Gracemont Lions Year 1" shirts, echoing chants of "D-D-Defense", his goal was already complete: Football had saved the town of Gracemont.

*****

After all was said and done, the Lions lost their home-opener 48-0, with Riverfield controlling every aspect of the game. But as the Ravens ran up the score, Gracemont racked up its profits. $1,000 ...$2,000 ... $2,200, Fullbright counted, and she hadn't even factored in the T-shirt shirt sales. As fans filed from the stands, a stranger threw his arm around Fullbright, and said, "I've never seen a team have so much fun losing."

No matter the score, Gracemont won. The doors to the school still opened every morning. The number of failing students halved, something Jones attributes to grade eligibility incentives. Though the upticks in enrollment -- six students -- were small, other significant benefits surfaced: Ticket and concession sales pumped more money into the athletic budget than ever before, and, against all odds, a booster club formed.

Following the 2011 season, Gracemont has yet to win a game. It's a combined 0-13, outscored 693-94. But the Lions are improving: touchdowns are more frequent, the margin of defeat narrower. "You can tell the team is better this year," Fullbright said. "In three to five years we'll be winning."

More importantly, in three to five years, the school will remain open. Life in Gracemont will carry on, and Fullbright, Jones and Scott will continue work as educators. A community will see its children age and develop -- a fact that's far from taken for granted.

Friday night serve as a reminder: Sometimes, there's more to sports than just winning and losing. In retrospect, Scott wasn't so crazy, after all.

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