Even worse, basketball coaches in Chicago tell their players not to even think about playing football and risking injury. "Four or five guys on the basketball team wanted to play football," says Albert Powell, a senior free safety and receiver, "but a basketball coach threatened 'em, saying they'll be off the team if they play for us."
Williams's anger boils over whenever he hears these stories, for they mean that athletes on Chicago's South Side are wasting their chances of getting college football scholarships. "The bottom line," he says, his voice rising, "is basketball coaches need to be honest with kids who aren't good enough and tell them to go out for other sports. If you have a kid who never plays [in basketball games] but could have the talent for Division I football, you should tell him, instead of keeping the kid to dress up your bench. It's not about basketball. It's about life, what's right and wrong."
All around the Chicago Public League, football is fighting to survive. Three high schools—Lake View, Near North and Wells-have canceled games this season because of a shortage of players. Meanwhile, Corliss High had only 14 players for its home opener; Foreman High had 15. Williams pulls out a letter he has just received from Peter Fosco, the coach at Carl Schurz High. Under the headline SAVE FOOTBALL, it reads, "I am writing to you and all of the football coaches in the Public League with a concern that our sport we love is dying in the Public League. Every year our football programs are declining with the number of quality athletes going out for our teams."
At least Schurz has a football field. King is supposed to have its first field next year—or the year after. Williams isn't sure. For now he takes a morbid pleasure in showing King's football facilities to visitors. "This is where we practice," he says, walking out the east side of the school building with his team. "Every day! Can you believe it?"
Lying before him are four square patches of grass and mud, each measuring 12 by 20 yards and separated by concrete paths. When the team tries to run drills, the players have to dodge trees and limbs and look out for five-inch-high stumps underfoot. Across the street men sit on stoops drinking 40s of St. Ides. The only piece of heavy equipment on the grass is a rusty blocking sled propped up against a wall. The constant sound is that of cleats skidding on concrete as ballcarriers avoid being hit by cars on Ellis Street. "We're good against the run," says Williams, "but we have trouble with the pass. We're not used to all that space."
The next day a train clatters past on the tracks overlooking Amos Alonzo Stagg Stadium, where a crowd that might crack triple digits is watching the homecoming game against Robeson High. "The game doesn't change," says James Rainey, who played for King last year. "The enthusiasm changes. I've been coming to King football games since I was six. This place used to be packed. There were at least 1,000 kids. Now we get maybe 50 students."
King gets waxed, 41-0, but Coach Williams remains calm, stopping to teach the rudiments of the game to his players: stance, blocking, hitting. Things could be worse. A few weeks ago he thought he wouldn't even have a team. "My greatest goal is to rebuild this program despite the obstacles," he says. "We may have to start at the beginning, but I know we can do it."
What is the future of high school football? Sources at the NFL say that if schools' financial situations deteriorate further, the league may someday fund and operate its own regional football academies (not unlike Nick Bollettieri's tennis school in Florida).
Meanwhile, the struggle continues. At Hinsdale, administrators hope to bring back varsity football next year, though they'll have to wait and see how many players show up on the first day of practice. At the Miami-Dade County schools, players, coaches and ADs keep beavering away at their fund-raising, but expenses continue to rise. And at King High in Chicago, Williams predicts he'll have 28 varsity football players out next year. King might even challenge for the Public League title, he says, "now that we've learned how to put our pants on right."
At Butner High in Oklahoma, the basketball season is under way. The Eagles could advance to the state playoffs this year, but football is gone for good.