WELLSTON — Normally, players leave winless football teams in the middle of a season, not join them.
Wellston High School has lost 20 straight football games — the fourth-longest losing streak in the state — and 34 of its last 35.
Two weeks ago, eight more students showed up for a Monday morning practice to start playing on a 0-5 football team that only had 16 players.
Some of the newcomers had played football in junior high. Some had played last year but quit. Some had never played football before. All of them just wanted to help.
“These guys, they give it their all every time,” said Micheal Bailey, one of the midseason walk-ons.
“We wanted to show them that we believe in them. We just wanted to help them out and try to get them a win. They deserve it.”
Changing the culture
Second-year Wellston coach Fred Peery found widespread apathy around the football program when he took over at his alma mater.
Peery knew the program was down when he accepted the job. He didn't realize how far of a climb would be required.
Spring football and summer workouts were not stressed. The junior high players didn't even know Wellston had a weight room.
After Wellston's first game last season, only four players showed up for the mandatory Saturday morning film session the next day.
Suffering through a winless season last year, it was the norm that less than half the team would show up for practice.
“That was pretty disappointing for me,” Peery said.
Losing has been tough for Peery, who is used to winning. He played for a Wellston football team in 1994 that advanced to the second round of the playoffs and lost to the eventual state champion, Velma-Alma.
He was an assistant coach at winning programs in Seminole and Chandler, including being on the staff of a state runner-up at Chandler.
“It is a culture change you have to make more than anything,” Peery said.
Restoring the pride
Losing also has been tough on the players.
“There are a lot of people that talk down about the football team,” said Anthony Poplin, a senior lineman. “That's the reason we don't have a lot of numbers. Nobody wants to play for a losing team. That's just how it's been quite a while now.”
Poplin, however, never thought about quitting, like some of his former teammates did.
“I have too much passion for Wellston,” he said. “I have been playing for this team forever. Losing gets to me, but I love football and I love playing for this team.”
It hasn't translated to wins on the football field, but Peery said the players have done everything that's been asked of them.
“Whether you are winning or losing, you got to start doing the right things,” he said.
People in the community have noticed the improvement and the effort.
“Everyone is wearing their orange and black, and they are pumped up for the game,” said senior Jeremy Gaitan. “People are hanging up signs, ‘Go Tigers.' I haven't seen that in a long time.”
The closest Wellston has gotten to a win this season was a 7-0 loss to Drumright on Sept. 28, when a fumble was returned for a touchdown late in the game.
Whether the Tigers win a game this season or not, Poplin believes he has played a part in the program's turnaround.
“We haven't won any games, but you can tell we've improved from last year,” he said. “I know we are getting a lot better, and this program is going to be a lot better in the future. I guarantee that.”
Men of Courage
Peery didn't expect to add eight new players in the middle of the season, but he gladly accepted the help.
Now, the coaches and junior high students don't have to stand in on the scout team during practice. Three of the newcomers already have earned starting positions.
On Thursday, Peery took his Tigers to Shawnee for a team photo that he plans to put on a poster entitled “Men of Courage.”
He thinks it's courageous that high school kids will continue to battle for a team that never wins, and that other kids would want to join them halfway through the season.
He plans to put the poster in the Wellston weight room for future Tiger players to see.
“This group here has laid the foundation,” Peery said. “These kids practice like they haven't lost a game, and that to me is inspiring.”
WELLSTON (0-6) AT MEEKER (2-4)
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Scouting report: Wellston hasn't won a football game since Oct. 8, 2010, when the Tigers defeated Hinton, 32-20. In the last two seasons, Wellston has been shut out eight times and not scored more than 14 points in a game. Meeker is coming off a 58-21 loss to Stroud and is 1-2 in District 2A-5 with its lone victory coming against Haskell.