UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

Gracemont (Okla.) helps save its school by adding football program

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?

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.

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.