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.
October 26, 1987
"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.
It's 7:15 on a weekday morning when the last yellow school bus rolls into the parking lot at CAPE. Children pour out, dressed in a motley assortment of sweats and sneakers. Several football players wear state championship jackets. They're due in class in 10 minutes.
Some have had to get up at five to catch their buses. They hate the regimen and gripe about long hours spent "riding the cheese" to the school, which is located in north Cincinnati. CAPE is actually two buildings, a mile apart. One, a former all-black elementary school, stands in the middle of some housing projects; it's the home of the kindergarten through fifth grade. The other, which is situated on a forested hillside, was once a junior high; it encompasses grades 6 through 12. The student body in each building is racially balanced—and that's the whole point of CAPE and of the 26 other alternative, or magnet, programs in Cincinnati. In response to a 1974 NAACP lawsuit attacking segregation in Ohio schools, Cincinnati, with a student population that is 57% black, instituted the magnet programs, which offer specialized study in computers, math, the performing arts and other fields. The specialized schools encourage black students to voluntarily ride buses into white areas, and white students to ride buses into black areas. By and large the program has succeeded. In 1984 the NAACP, satisfied that the alternative schools program was working, settled its lawsuit.
CAPE, with its emphasis on phys ed, has turned out to be a special success. It accepts applicants from throughout the city on a first-come, first-served basis, with quotas by race, sex and grade level. There are no entrance exams, and despite the accusations of recruiting, athletic ability is not taken into account. Last year more than 1,500 students applied for 300 openings.
Jock Tech it is not. Some parents choose it because it is highly disciplined and small (525 high school students, 1,600 overall). Others like the academics: CAPE stresses basics and has tougher graduation requirements than most other Cincinnati public schools. Its students must pass one more course per quarter than those in other Cincinnati schools to remain eligible for interscholastic sports and they must endure a school day that is an hour longer.
CAPE students spend an average of three times as many hours in phys-ed classes as other Cincinnati public school kids. In the lower grades they concentrate on motor skills; later they receive training in dozens of sports and outdoor activities—from basketball to rappeling—and study physiology and nutrition as they apply to various endeavors. At a time when youth fitness is a national disgrace—40% of boys and 70% of girls cannot do more than one pull-up—CAPE asks its students to shape up. "Here we take seriously the notion of a sound mind in a sound body," says principal John Maher. "Our motto is nulli secundo—second to none."
Only 17 states (including Ohio) have any P.E. requirements at all in their public schools. Typically, Cincinnati high school students might not be required to take any phys-ed classes at all their junior and senior years. Generally, a CAPE student's curriculum includes at least one course in the "skills-practice program," in which students are expected to become proficient in "lifetime" activities. From kindergarten through third grade the only skills-practice course offered is gymnastics, which develops strength, coordination and flexibility. Older students can take aerobic dance, golf and tennis as well as such unconventional electives as riflery, unicycling and juggling.
Unlike many other schools, CAPE has made a real commitment to building healthy children. "If you find 10 kids out of the 1,600 here who are overweight, you're lucky," says Maher. These positive effects appear to carry into other areas. CAPE's reading and math test scores are the third highest in the city, behind only the college-prep magnet program and the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, both of which have entrance requirements. At the same time CAPE has some of the lowest rates of drug use, vandalism, dropouts and pregnancy in the city. "Kids want to be here," says Maher. "That makes a tremendous difference."
In room 005B, Eric Novicki instructs 11th-and 12th-graders in a vocational program called Health Fitness. The students learn the rudiments of athletic training, sports medicine and physical therapy in preparation for college programs in these fields or for jobs in physical-therapy clinics or health spas. "A lot of the people who work in health spas are just muscle-heads," says Novicki. "Our kids understand the reason things are done." Students in the program tape ankles, test basketball players for strength and endurance and serve internships at area clinics and clubs.
Backstage in the auditorium there are archery and riflery classes. "It's the only place we have for them," says Bruce Breiner, CAPE's 31-year-old athletic director. Aside from a lot of sports medicine equipment and a $45,000 weight room, the school's athletic facilities are surprisingly limited. The swim team has no pool; it practices in a local recreation center. The track team trains in the streets and has no home meets. There are no courts for the tennis team, which plays on municipal facilities. Two newly graded practice fields are still covered with grass seed and straw. "In six years we've yet to work out on a full field," says Sheehan, whose team trains on a 60-yard patch of scrub with one set of bent and rusty goalposts.
But facilities aren't critical to success. Two years ago CAPE's girls' track team won the state title. Their coach, Jim En-gel, a science teacher of Einsteinian appearance, sells dill pickles that he stores in his classroom refrigerator to raise money for what he jokingly calls "the track team slush fund"; the money goes to buy shoes and other equipment for poorer team members.
Instructors often make use of the students' interest in sports to facilitate the teaching of other subjects. In physics force and momentum are explained in terms of pitched baseballs; in math teachers zero in on sports statistics. Julian Holland, who has coached the boys' basketball team to a 93-28 record over five seasons, tells his American history students of sickly young Teddy Roosevelt boxing and lifting weights to build up his strength. "I try to make it something they can relate to," he says.
Of course, not everyone is happy with, or at, CAPE. Last February, D.J. Boston, a 6'6" sophomore on the basketball team, became academically ineligible under CAPE's higher standards; he transferred this fall to his local high school. Such moves are not uncommon. "We get a lot of kids who think they're here to play," says Maher. Recalcitrant students go back to their neighborhoods.
In complaining that CAPE has unfair advantages, coaches from rival high schools allege that it receives a disproportionate share of city athletic funds and takes many of the best athletes from their districts, sometimes through recruiting, which is prohibited under state athletic association rules. However, Joe Bell, athletic director for the Cincinnati public school system, says CAPE gets "exactly the same amount" for sports equipment as the city's seven other high schools and only slightly more to pay coaches, a result of having more varsity teams. Bell also argues that no case of recruiting has ever been documented. "CAPE is kind of in a fishbowl," he says. "Everybody's watching closely, including myself."
The fact is, CAPE has some obvious advantages in sports. It is designed to attract athletically inclined students and help them develop. Still, it hasn't swept up all, or even most, of Cincinnati's good young athletes. Only one third of CAPE's students even play interscholastic sports. But those athletes do show a remarkable understanding of their bodies and the ways of caring for them. Asked how he treated his sore shoulder last spring, senior pitcher Tim McFadden says with a shrug, "I just went in and put a hydrocollator on it. It stimulates the muscle and brings blood to the area." When senior Tim Jones injured his shoulder playing soccer, he went to his doctor and said, "I think I pulled the deltoid from the attachment at the humerus." The startled doctor concurred.
CAPE is now drawing national attention. San Diego and St. Louis have set up similar schools on lower grade levels, and Kansas City is planning to build a virtual clone of CAPE as part of a court-ordered desegregation program. The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports recently sent a crew to the school to make a film.
CAPE's goal, however, remains nothing more than to turn out students who are literate, health-conscious and socially aware. The message is getting through. Last spring's final issue of The CAPE Connection, the school paper, included a "senior prophecy" that foresaw graduates not only playing some day for the Reds, Celtics and Dolphins, but also curing AIDS and leukemia, fighting racism and running homes for abused children. These are students with hope and ambition.
Those are traits the football-playing Crusaders are beginning to evince in good measure. They followed up their win at Alter by beating Columbus Northland 41-12 last Friday night and remain in contention for the playoffs and a chance to defend their state title. No matter what happens, Sheehan can look to next season optimistically, knowing that 17 of his starters will return. This, he says, was supposed to be a rebuilding year anyway. Obviously, his team's future—like that of the innovative school it represents—is bright.