On a cold, wet Friday night in Kettering, Ohio, coach Steve Sheehan and his Cincinnati Academy of Physical Education ( CAPE) Crusaders football team huddle in the visitors' locker room at Alter High. Rain seeps through the roof and drips to the floor. The mood is tense.
"You've done nothing all season!" thunders Sheehan, grabbing a player by the shoulder pads and shaking him. "Absolutely nothing! Doesn't it mean anything to you?" Sheehan, normally a calm and reasoning man, continues circling the room, shoving other players, berating them.
Later he will say, "I couldn't do that every week. You'd have to peel me off the floor." But so much is at stake tonight. CAPE (or, as it's sometimes written, C.A.P.E.) is Cincinnati's innovative phys-ed alternative school, and it has risen to prominence largely because of its football team, which won Division III state championships in 1985 and '86. Before this season the Crusaders had lost only seven games in their five years of existence. They have been so successful that other Cincinnati schools have come to resent CAPE. They label it Jock Tech, accuse it of improper recruiting and—at least in the past—of beating up on smaller schools. "They want to build a real big record and publicize it, without having played anybody good," says one rival coach.
Now, however, the Crusaders are struggling. The trouble started last December, when the Cincinnati Hills League voted to kick them out for being too good. In putting together an independent schedule, CAPE was unable to find many opponents in Division III ( Ohio has five levels of high school football competition). Against mostly Division I and II opponents, the Crusaders have lost three straight games after two wins. A defeat tonight against favored Alter—a strong Division II team—would all but extinguish CAPE's chances of reaching the state playoffs.
"This losing has to stop sometime!" Sheehan bellows as kickoff time nears. "You can stop it tonight!" His players whoop and slap each other's helmets as they stampede out the door.
The composition of the crowd at the game strips away some myths about both the Crusaders and their school. Scarcely 30 CAPE fans have undertaken the 45-minute drive north from Cincinnati. Such lack of support is typical. The school has no neighborhood affiliation—its students come from all parts of Cincinnati—and few alumni. The brainchild of the local chapter of Phi Epsilon Kappa, a physical-education fraternity, CAPE opened in 1977 with 54 fourth-to sixth-graders; it didn't graduate a high school class until '84. Many of its students are from low-income single-parent families that can't easily travel to distant sporting events. CAPE doesn't even have its own football field. For home games it rents one at Cincinnati Technical College.
There's another revelation, in the size of the Crusader players. These are state champs? Few weigh as much as 200 pounds, and many are dwarfed by their Alter counterparts. But what the CAPE player lacks in size, he makes up for in speed, aggressiveness and discipline. Against Alter, the Crusader defense, led by 140-pound noseguard Brian Harris, forces five fumbles in the first half, recovering three of them and returning one for a touchdown.
Late in the second quarter CAPE quarterback Andre Sims lofts a pass to diving tight end Edwin Houston in the end zone and the Crusaders take a 13-3 lead. At halftime Sheehan confers intently with his six teacher-assistants. Sheehan, himself a business instructor, has tended to every detail of CAPE football—from play book to uniform-style—since he founded the team in 1981. "They offered this job to every head coach in the Cincinnati public school system," Sheehan has said. "Nobody wanted it. No one knew if CAPE would last, or what kind of kids it would attract. No one thought it would be worth the headaches. But to me it looked like a dream come true."
He sends his Crusaders back onto the field with a reminder that they are two quarters away from a victory they will remember for years.
The second half is a defensive battle, and CAPE hangs on to win 19-12. After it's over, Sheehan takes his jubilant players to the end zone and makes them kneel. "Look at it," he says, pointing up to the scoreboard. "It could change the whole season, and lead to...the 'Shoe!" The Crusaders erupt in raucous cheers. The 'Shoe is the horseshoe-shaped stadium at Ohio State, site of the Division III championship game on Dec. 5. The players pray aloud in unison, then head for the buses.