“Sorry, coach, I couldn't come back. My brother got in trouble.”
Burgess' attention returns to his team, a hearty band of 32 strong on this break-in-the-weather afternoon. A disappointing turnout, considering 42 showed up the day before.
“We ran too hard yesterday, so they took today off,” joked offensive coordinator Charles Welde.
Welcome to U.S. Grant football. The only Oklahoma City Public School (or Tulsa Public School) in Class 6A. A school with all the challenges of the inner city – large dropout rates, often lack of parental involvement, minimal community support – faces one well-established football program after another. Lawton High. Mustang. Edmond North. Westmoore. Putnam City.
The Generals last season went 0-10 overall, 0-7 in district play. Grant moved up to Class 6A in 2004. Since then, the Generals have gone 1-9 four times and 0-10 thrice.
Burgess is the fourth head coach for Grant seniors. Mark Ackerman in 2008. Terrell Love in 2009. Matt Miller in 2010. Now Burgess.
“It's the hardest,” said quarterback Carlos Morales. “You gotta learn a new system every year.”
At least Burgess was on Miller's staff last season, providing some continuity. And Burgess tells his kids he's in for the long haul.
“I'm going to be here for awhile,” Burgess said he told Grant administrators. “I don't know how other guys felt about this. I know how I feel about it. Unless you guys run me off, I'm going to do right.
“It's a challenge. I knew it would be when I took the job. But I like challenges.”
Jenks and Tulsa Union players dream big. The General dream bigger.
“I want my first 6A win,” said junior linebacker Jimmy Kiplinger.
Said Morales, “A district win. Make some history.”
U.S. Grant is without a district victory since it rose to 6A. The Generals were outscored a combined 535-24 in seven district games last season.
Such futility keeps some boys from playing and others from remaining. But you could argue that the devotion to football is greater for the Generals who stick it out than those who play on perennially successful teams.
“It's my passion,” said Kiplinger.
The hard part is not Friday nights. The lights, the aroma, the grass, the excitement, the hope. Friday nights are fine.
“I love being with the guys,” Morales said. “Being under the lights. The crowd. It's a rush.”
The hard part is Monday morning, when knuckleheads in class start their criticism, with no idea how noble a football team can be just by competing against impossible odds.
“I usually challenge ‘em, come on out, join us,” Morales said. “They see the results, they don't want to come out. It gets tough sometime.”
Retention is a constant battle for Grant coaches.
“When one quits, another quits,” senior running back Derrick Young said of former teammates.
So Burgess and his staff do whatever they can to recruit players and keep them. Burgess recruits out of his P.E. class. The coaches constantly give players rides home. “Put a taxi sign on all our cars,” Burgess said.
And discipline is a little different. Burgess can't demand the same from his kids as can a coach in Norman or Edmond. Different circumstances, different environments. The linebacker with the little brother, for example.
“You can't run guys until they quit,” Welde said. “We've got four or five seniors that have never played before. We can't lose those guys.”
Burgess has coached all over. Okemah, Choctaw, Little Axe, Tecumseh.
“There's a fine line in discipline,” Burgess said. “Do it too hard, they'll bail. Don't do it enough, there's no discipline.
“We're still going to get to do what we call a reminder. If they bow up, I guess they don't want to play.
“Some of these boys will respond exactly how you want ‘em to. Some will get all mealy-mouthed on you.”
U.S. Grant is approximately 70 percent Hispanic students. Burgess estimates half his squad is made up of Hispanics, which is a solid ratio, considering the lack of football history in most Hispanics' family.
Burgess said he asked his players: How many of your dads have played football? How many of your uncles? Two or three hands went up.
“They don't have that frame of reference,” Burgess said.
Burgess shakes his head at the spring sight of U.S. Grant soccer practice. One hundred boys strong out for the team.
So you have to sell the benefits, tangible and abstract, of football.
Burgess' staff has solicited local restaurants – Jake's Country Café and Oklahoma River – to help provide pregame meals for the Generals. Welde has shipped out DVDs to universities like Southwestern State and Southern Nazarene, trying to get his players college scholarships.
But the commitment to football you find in the other suburbs is harder to cultivate at Grant.
Last summer, the Generals averaged eight players a day at their summer workouts. Hard to play in the 7-on-7 passing leagues with just eight players, some of whom are linemen. And the summer camps, which have become so vital for team development, are cost-prohibitive for the Generals. Most families can't afford the camps; no booster club to pay the freight.
And so the Generals already are behind on this summer evening as they gather for just their third practice, on their field right off Pennsylvania Avenue, working hard, short in number and realistic chances, but long on hope.