Two years ago, after 40 years coaching elsewhere, Dan Stanley returned to the site of his first job coaching high school football. Then 72, the Westport High team he inherited didn't look much like the one he'd coached in 1964; like the coach himself, the school he knew had long ago fled to the suburbs. But he coached them anyway, and in two seasons had them atop the Interscholastic League.
Now, as high school football practice starts up across the region, Stanley is spending his days trying to explain to those league-winning kids why they won't be playing football this fall -- not at Westport, and not anywhere else. "They counted on me," the coach tells Plog.
Westport, of course, is one of 26 schools to close this summer as part of the district's "right-sizing plan." But while the kids knew all spring that their school would close, they assumed they'd wind up playing somewhere else, Stanley says. He kept an after-school study table through the winter to make sure they were eligible to play come fall, and he pushed them into the weight room all spring. Meanwhile, he kept calling the school district, trying to find out what would happen to his team.
It eventually became clear his kids would be transferring to Southwest Early College Campus in Brookside; while the school didn't field a team last season, it would obviously be big enough once Westport showed up. Stanley assumed he would take over at Southwest. But as the summer wore on, he says, he couldn't get an answer out of the school district. He started to suspect that his players were about to get screwed.
"I kept calling," he says. "They knew that I knew because I was calling two-three times a week."
Eventually Stanley caught wind that instead of fielding a team at Southwest, the district planned to bus whatever kids wanted to play football to another district school -- a plan doomed from the beginning, Stanley says, because it's against state rules. He says the district received an e-mail from the state in June explaining why that plan didn't work, but failed to come up with an alternative. (The school district's PR people haven't called me back yet.)
Eventually, what was supposed to be the first week of practice came. Stanley's phone started ringing.
"The kids were never told," he says. "First day of practice, they all called me. It broke my heart. They counted on me. They kept calling me about getting physicals. ... Everytime I talked to them I felt bad."
With KCTV 5 and NBC Action News on the case, the kids are starting to show up on TV now, talking about how football could be their only way to get to college.
But Stanley knows it's not about scholarships. League champs or not, not many boys are destined to have football lead them into college. Instead, it's everything else football provides that the kids will miss: a place to be from 3 to 5; another incentive to get grades; and everything else we've learned from Friday Night Lights, including, but not limited to, the adoration of cheerleaders.
"There are a lot of kids who would be in trouble if it weren't for football," says Stanley, who will work as an assistant at Belton High this season. "It's one thing having the school taken away from you. It's another thing not being given the same privileges as kids at other schools."
Stanley says the kids may get a chance to speak out at a school board meeting tonight, when the issue is expected to be raised, probably loudly. "It's not too late," he says. "They haven't played any games. They've only had two practices."
H/T: Blog KC