It was one of the most exciting comebacks in Florida high school football history: With two minutes to go in a semifinal playoff game on Dec. 7 at Miami's Orange Bowl, the hitherto undefeated state champion Miami Northwestern Bulls were watching their season and their ranking as the nation's top high school football team slip away. The Deerfield Beach Bucks were leading 14-12 in the game, and had the ball on Northwestern's 1-yard line. But the Bulls not only kept the Bucks out of the end zone, they marched 99 yards with just one timeout left, converting two fourth-down plays, to score the winning touchdown with just 18 seconds remaining.
The comeback in the semifinal seemed to resemble a more important revival off the field. Just one year ago, Northwestern, a public school of 2,800 students in the impoverished Liberty City neighborhood, was mired in a scandal centered on its football program. The team's 18-year-old star running back had been arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old girl in a campus bathroom, and the school's principal, who allowed the young man to play in last year's state championship game anyway, was later indicted for allegedly failing to report the unlawful sex act to police. (The player's charges were eventually dropped after he completed a pre-trial diversion program; the principal pleaded not guilty and his trial is pending. The girl, meanwhile, has since attempted suicide.) Heaped on top of Northwestern's chronic academic failures, the case was widely viewed as yet another example of a high school mimicking the warped, football-centric priorities for which many U.S. colleges have long been criticized.
A year later, many feel Northwestern has also made itself an example of how to turn those problems around. Instead of suspending football at the school altogether, reform-minded Miami-Dade Schools superintendent Rudy Crew purged much of Northwestern's administrative and football coaching staff. Then, he brought back a respected former Northwestern head coach, Billy Rolle, and hired a veteran principal, Charles Hankerson, with a mandate to emphasize grades over gridiron. "Monday through Friday we're really not talking about football," says Hankerson. "In some ways, we have to re-culturalize a whole population here, but I think we're having success driving the message home."
Last year a huge banner with photos of the football squad hung in the school's entrance; today a more modest team display competes with large, framed photos of students excelling in academics like Lizbet Pinto and Sharria Scavella, who recently took top honors at a National Institutes of Health competition for aspiring doctors. They include students of the month, who get small gifts and, more important, the kind of praise on the school loudspeaker too often missing before. Students who participate in sports and extracurricular activities must attend a Saturday school program and are urged to bring parents along to keep up in the classroom. All kids must wear their school uniforms and IDs although, if they meet weekly attendance targets Hankerson sets, they can wear blue jeans on Fridays. That program has helped raise average student attendance this year to almost 94% a key to raising class performance, say teachers.
Incentives apply to the football players, too: to stay on the team, they must keep a 2.5 grade-point average (out of a possible 4). Staff and students agree that Hankerson, himself a former Miami high school basketball star, has generated a renewed air of discipline and academic purpose. "We've only had a couple fights on campus this year, where we'd probably already had 15 this time last year," says Marcus Forston, 18, a senior defensive tackle with a 3.5 GPA. "We're getting pushed in the right direction now."
About time, too. Since 2001, Northwestern's results in Florida's standardized test, the FCAT, have helped earn the school either a D or an F from state education authorities. Last year's troubles, ironically, may have accelerated efforts to reform the school, which a generation ago enjoyed a proud reputation as an educational bulwark for its mostly African-American students. "Absolutely it's had a silver lining," says Cleveland Morley, class of 1968, a Miami businessman and vice chairman of Northwestern's alumni board. "The school and community feel the system cares enough about them again to put in this kind of leadership."
Northwestern has unusually devoted alumni. But many, especially the zealous football boosters, came under heavy criticism last year for having bred a mentality that said because the school's academic traditions had withered, "sports was the only place kids in Liberty City could demonstrate excellence," says Robert Andrew Powell, a Miami-based writer and author of We Own This Game: A Season In the Adult World of Youth Football. "Northwestern has one of the most amazingly talented high school football teams I've ever seen, but its case also points out how this country has to start addressing the professionalization of high school football."
For that reason, Powell who like many critics remains skeptical about Northwestern football reform disagreed with allowing the Bulls to travel to Texas in September to play the nation's No. 2-ranked team, Southlake Carroll High School, in a game televised nationally on ESPN. (Northwestern won, 29-21.) Hankerson insists it was proper to let his kids enjoy a national spotlight, "as long as they prove they're student-athletes with good character. They know now they have to earn the opportunity, and this year's team has. They're good young men."
Still, Hankerson acknowledges that the U.S. has "lost perspective about what sports should be at this age." Northwestern is hardly the only prep football powerhouse to face embarrassment of late. Nor are such problems confined to poor minority schools. An investigation recently found that staff at Hoover High School in affluent, mostly white Hoover, Ala., had changed grades for football players. So, while the Northwestern Bulls handily won their second consecutive state championship in last Saturday's final, to Hankerson, "our true state championship comes in March, when our students take the FCAT." His goal: to raise Northwestern's grade, currently an F, to at least a C. "I want," he says, "to win."