Gracemont (Okla.) helps save its school by adding football program
Before 2010, Gracemont High never had a football team in its 100-year history
Teacher Jeremy Scott proposed the idea to boost dwindling enrollment totals
The entire community worked to help create the team -- and save the school
Jeremy Scott knew everyone in the room would think he was crazy. Hell, he even thought he was crazy as he stood in May 2010 to address the Gracemont, Okla., school board. Scott was a newcomer to Gracemont (pop. 336), a one-stoplight town located 70 miles west of Oklahoma City. It was a place where residents raised everything from cattle to cotton to peanuts, often on the same land that their grandfathers, and grandfathers' grandfathers, had worked before them. Scott was born in Texas and played and coached football there. But at 25, convinced that he'd reached the pinnacle of his career after leading Gainesville (Texas) High to the 2003 state title, he agreed to move with his wife back to her native Oklahoma. Better go out on top, he figured, and buried his whistle at the bottom of a drawer.
By the 2009-10 school year, Scott had transferred to Gracemont, a school where he sat through countless staff meetings about declining attendance, a $200,000 budget shortfall and the process of shepherding veteran teachers to reduced schedules or early retirements. He heard fellow teachers suggest ideas for architectural design courses and agricultural classes -- anything to attract students and the per-pupil state and federal aid that came with them. That's when the thought first crossed his mind: What if we ... but he quickly banished the notion. The idea wasn't worth discussing. In an economic crisis, it was borderline preposterous.
But as months rolled by, the need for a solution became dire. Financial markets plunged, and bigger, wealthier districts such as Los Angeles Unified School district cut their sports budgets by as much 25 percent. Duval County, Fla., considered cutting its sports program entirely. It wasn't alone: 41 schools nationwide eliminated their varsity football programs.
But in tiny Gracemont, logic gave way to desperation. Jeremy Scott cleared his throat, and delivered a Hail Mary proposal to the school board.
"Let's bring football to Gracemont High," he said.
In its 100-year existence -- despite its location football-crazy Oklahoma -- Gracemont never had a football team. With approximately 10 students per class, it never made sense. It still didn't, particularly given the school board's threadbare budget and need to boost enrollment totals before state bureaucrats shut it down for good. But as Scott presented his proposal, going on about the need not only for a football program but also for a reason for kids to attend Gracemont, he won over a few supporters. Everyone wanted desperately to avoid the fate that afflicted so many other small schools: elimination.
Roberta Fullbright, 69, spent the past 45 years working for Gracemont. She knew all about educational grants, how to maneuver the intricacies of Title VII provisions. But football? "First down? Second down? I don't know what they're talking about," she said.
Upon hearing Scott's football plan to save Gracemont, she quickly morphed into the team's biggest booster. She anchored herself to a computer, writing more than 300 solicitation letters to nearly everyone in Caddo County. She didn't know the difference between a quarterback and a cornerback, but it didn't matter. She knew the difference between small towns that retained their schools and those that didn't. "Why would anyone want to live in a town if there's no school?" she asked.
It's a valid question. With no schools, there are no young families. With no young families, there is no growth. Schools in places like Gracemont don't just teach kids, they employ parents. The Gracemont school system counted more people on its payroll than any other business in town, so whether it was football or something else, Fullbright wholeheartedly backed the cause. After all, the lifelong educator worked part-time at Wal-Mart and frequented half-priced senior citizen buffets because she thought those would be the best places to meet people who could help her help the school.
By mid-June, many of Fullbright's connections had received pleas for football equipment or cash. Gracemont's median income is $34,000, but what townspeople lacked in money they made up for in generosity and competitiveness. When Fullbright called the Gold River tribe, a Native American tribe that manages the Gold River Casino four miles outside Gracemont, tribe leaders asked how much the Caddo tribe on the other side of the county had pitched in. "Six hundred dollars," Fullbright told them. She walked out with a check for $601. The Fort Sill Apaches nearly doubled down, providing $1,000 to the team. A steady stream of envelopes containing five- and twenty-dollar bills found their way to Fullbright's desk, some coming from regions as far away as California.
The support, in many ways, was overwhelming. Bill Sexton, at Sexton & Sexton School Supply in nearby Apache, Okla., faxed a six-page inventory list and asked Gracemont to circle what it wanted. The Caddo tribe used a connection with Under Armour to score free practice shorts and tees. Nearby schools such as Seminole High, Lawton Christian High, and Dell City High donated old shoulder pads, and one of Gracemont superintendent Mike Jones' fellow administrators at Pond Creek-Hunter High offered its old scoreboard. Jones and Scott promptly borrowed a trailer to haul it to the baseball field that volunteers were transforming into a gridiron.
The donations of cash, time, money and equipment came quickly, but not as rapidly as time slipped away. The end of August approached, and with it, the football season. Plenty of work remained. Ruts needed to be filled, and the foul lines converted into to end zones. The scoreboard was at the field, but it wasn't standing. With just two weeks until kickoff, a pang of panic hit Fullbright -- What if Gracemont couldn't finish in time?