Yard by Yard

by longformphilly


Steve Esack | The Morning Call | November 2009

In one arm, John McDowell clutches a stack of papers. On his shoulder dangles a satchel brimming with his laptop, playbooks and the high expectations he has carried from the West Coast.

McDowell, Dieruff High School’s new head football coach, follows Rich Ocelus, the quarterback coach he hired over the phone and just met face to face. They walk down an outside ramp on Washington Street to a basement door and wend their way through windowless corridors into a dingy weight room.

The football office is up five small steps, deep in the belly of Dieruff.

Ocelus flicks on the lights.

“All right, we got the dungeon,” McDowell says through chuckles.

Before him, illuminated by five dangling strobes, is a room time forgot.

Staples, chicken wire and studs hold the exterior wall together. On the gray floor is a red carpet remnant, stained black with God knows what.

A lab table, ripped aqua blue love seat and tattered beige couch hold the carpet down.

A blanket of dust pervades, like the ghosts of Dieruff’s past glory days.

“All right, all right, we’ll clean it up, we’ll clean it up,” McDowell says. “This is my desk, I’m calling it.”

In the weeks that follow this June 22 day, McDowell will throw out the carpet and the couch after discovering an animal — he hopes it was a cat — had been living inside.

It would be the easiest piece of housecleaning he would do.

The Allentown School District did not hire McDowell just to be Dieruff’s coach. It hired him to rebuild a football tradition in a school district and city weighed down by poverty and crime.

Between the school’s founding in 1959 and 1989, Dieruff was a football powerhouse, producing 20 winning seasons and five championships in the old East Penn Conference.

The school regularly turned out Division I football recruits like Ross Moore and John Smurda who went to Ohio State, and the Atiyeh brothers, George (Louisiana State) and Dennis (University of Pittsburgh).

And, of course, there is Andre Reed, who surpassed them all with a thoroughbred’s work ethic that took him from Dieruff to Kutztown University, then on to a 16-year NFL career as a wide receiver who caught passes in four Super Bowls with the Buffalo Bills in the 1990s.

But since 1990, Dieruff has won just 58 of 201 games. It’s been even worse over the last eight school years: just 17 wins and 75 losses.

The Dieruff players — the serious ones, anyway — know the lousy records have turned them into weekly jokes in their own hallways, opponents’ locker rooms, newspaper columns and near-empty stadiums.

“It’s frustrating,” said senior defensive back Lazarus “Laz” Ramos, 18. “People don’t realize we actually try.”

It’s the same story at Allen High School in the city’s West End. There, second-year coach Chris Kinane has won one game.

But Allen has always been considered a basketball school. Football belonged to Dieruff.

When the last coach quit in March and with Dieruff in the midst of a $30.7 million construction makeover that includes new athletic amenities, Principal Jim Moniz and Athletic Director Tim Geiger figured it was time to try to fix football, too.

The only way to restore Husky pride was to find a coach willing to rebuild the football program from the bottom up.

It meant linking Dieruff’s playbook and expectations to a fledgling middle school football program and a struggling freshman team.

It also meant the new coach had to be willing to make weekend inroads into the city’s independent youth football leagues, which remain a fertile ground for young athletes but, like Dieruff, suffer from a lack of parental support.

“What needs to be fixed can’t be done in Weeks 1 through 10,” Geiger says. “It’s too hard.”

But they think they’ve found that winning coach in McDowell, whose last coaching stint was at a high school in the suburbs of Sacramento, Calif., with so much panache that upperclassmen drive BMWs, and some of his students were the children of NBA Sacramento Kings basketball players.

McDowell, Dieruff’s fifth coach in a decade, thinks he can resurrect the school’s football legacy.

“I’m just a big believer in you make the big time where you’re at regardless of what you’ve got,” he says.

Writer bio: Steve Esack, a native of Northeast Philadelphia and graduate of Temple University, served as an Inquirer suburban correspondent for two years before moving to the Allentown Morning Call in 2002. For this series the Scripps Howard Foundation awarded him the prestigious Ernie Pyle Award for human interest writing in 2010.

Continue reading the “Yard by Yard” series: Parts 1 2 3 4 5