Ken Berry loves the way they play football at McGuinness and Heritage Hall.He’s a fan of their discipline, precision and repetition."They do exactly what they’re supposed to do,” he said.
"That’s the reason they’re powerhouses.”The way Berry talks, you might think he’s a booster or a complimentary coach.Instead, he’s a linebacker at John Marshall High School. As a football player in the Oklahoma City Public Schools, Berry doesn’t envy the things that other teams have. That might surprise those outside the inner-city schools, but the district has increased its commitment to football and upgraded uniforms, equipment, even facilities in recent years.The locker room that Berry and his teammates use is only a couple years old, thanks to MAPS for Kids, while the No. 22 jersey that the standout linebacker will wear on Friday nights is only a year old. Berry wants for nothing.Except wins.John Marshall won only twice last season when eight teams from Oklahoma City Public Schools had losing records. Only Douglass and Star Spencer finished with winning records. Such district-wide struggles are nothing new. With school enrollment dropping, football participation tumbling and coach turnover increasing, six of the 10 teams in the district haven’t enjoyed a winning season in the past decade. The past decade. Kids aren’t exactly lining up to play. Some leave the district for more promising programs. For those who stay, the odds are often stacked against them. Victories lack. Blowouts abound. You may not live in the footprint of the Oklahoma City Public Schools. You may wonder what any of this has to do with you. You may ask why you should care if Tulsa Union throttles U.S. Grant or if Northwest Classen only suits up a third as many players as Deer Creek.The reason is this — research has shown that kids who play sports are more likely to graduate, more likely to stay out of trouble, more likely to be productive citizens. Antonio Smith is living proof of that. Playing football at John Marshall changed his life."I stayed away from the things that would get me in trouble,” he said.He went on to play at Oklahoma State, then with the Arizona Cardinals. The defensive end started in the Super Bowl last January, and in March, he signed a five-year, $35 million contract with the Houston Texans. He worries fewer kids in the Oklahoma City Public Schools are seeing the benefits of playing football."Many kids are growing up these days, and it’s all about fast money, fast cars,” Smith said. "It’s easier to take the streets over football.” That is frustrating to good players like Ken Berry. Among the top recruits in the state this year, he already has scholarship offers from Air Force and Colorado State. He is 6-foot-1, 217 pounds. He is fast and strong and has a nose for the ball, but more than anything, he is dedicated. That is often the missing ingredient in the Oklahoma City Public Schools."Lots of time in the city,” Berry said, "it’s hard to get guys who can dedicate their whole time.”Sometimes, that’s by choice.Sometimes, it’s not.Berry knows guys who must care for younger siblings after school because there’s no one else to do it.
MORE FROM NEWSOK
A three-part series on football at Oklahoma City’s public schools→Saturday: U.S. Grant coach Terrell Love has a big task in front of him — trying to turn around the Generals’ football team. He’s up for the challenge, though. →Sunday: John Marshall’s Ken Berry is trying to follow in the footsteps of George West and Gerald McCoy — players who stayed at OKCPS schools and went on to play big-time college football. →Monday: A look at what is being done to improve the football programs across OKCPS, and several people offer up their ideas for how football can be revived in the district.