The St. Xavier High School parking lot is crammed with tailgaters before the St. X-Elder football game Sept. 28. The crowd spills out of the lot and into the church driveway across the street while long lines of cars wait in traffic.
Hundreds of people huddle around grills and tables of food, socializing in blue-clothed anticipation of this storied Cincinnati rivalry. Patches of purple dot the landscape, but most Elder fans are quickly finding their way inside the stadium and toward the visiting bleachers.
The scene is similar to a Sunday morning outside Paul Brown Stadium — the St. X fans hang out around meat-filled grills and sip from plastic cups, as alcohol isn't allowed on high school campuses (a sign says so upon entrance). Bean bags fly through the air toward cornhole boxes painted in St. X and Elder colors, and scores of children, almost all of them wearing blue or purple, run around with their friends.
Seven young boys — six wearing blue St. X shirts — sit in the grass outside the stadium. As two purple-shirted boys pass them, one yells out, "Hey, Elder sucks" in a tone suggesting the visitors are unaware of this fact.
The young West Siders take it in stride, as one gives a thumbs up and yells for his friend before muttering, "Don't they test for hearing at X?"
Once the game starts, Elder doesn't have much of a chance.
The Panthers can barely move the ball, repeatedly brushed back by St. X sacks and solid tackling by the Bomber defense.
I'm quite bored as the second half drags on without Elder coming close to scoring. To pass the time I send a text message to a friend who attended a local Catholic school and will understand the sarcasm with which I describe the game. It reads: "St. X 12, Elder 0. 4th quarter. The whites are enjoying themselves and I really wish they had gin & tonic here."
I wait out the fourth quarter of St. Xavier's 18-0 win, the school's fourth straight over Elder, and prepare for the long lines of traffic outside. I sincerely do not care that St. X won the game or that Elder lost. I have no affiliation with any high school that regularly wins contests, and I find little romance in a favored team winning a lopsided game.
But here's the funny thing: When one of these powerhouse Cincinnati schools is matched up against a team from somewhere else, which happens relatively often due to the lengths Cincinnati high schools must go to find suitable competition, I become a fan of the hometown team.
I might not have a school to relate to when Moeller plays La Salle, but when St. X plays on national TV against DeMatha, the athletics legend from suburban Washington, D.C., I identify with St. X: We're both from Cincinnati, and we will kick your ass at football. (Sept. 2: St. X 28, DeMatha 7.)
The truth is that most of the football teams here are fueled by this "Us vs. Them" mentality. From the neighborhood Pee Wee leagues through grade school, high school and college, local football players are supported by and in many ways define the communities that surround them.
The result of Greater Cincinnati's resourcefulness, pride and enthusiasm for local sports is a national reputation for football excellence and a traceable line of success that now, with UC's emergence in the Top 20, extends all the way to the major area Division I college program.
Gotta have faith
Before leaving St. X, I stop and ask the school's broadcasting team why the Bombers are always so good at football and why people in Cincinnati take the sport so seriously. St. X is ranked No. 2 nationally by USA Today and looks to be every bit as good as the ranking suggests. The team is not that far removed from its 2005 state title.
Ralph Nardini is the school's vice president of development, and Tony Schad is the director of annual giving. They began doing live play-by-play broadcasts for the school's Web site during the 2005 football season so alumni could follow the program from other cities and countries. They say the Greater Catholic League (GCL) thrives on tradition and Catholic faith.
"There's such a great Catholic high school system in Cincinnati," Nardini says. "The only other city that's close is St. Louis. They have a strong parochial system, but Cincinnati's probably got the strongest parochial system, and for some reason that's what I think makes the GCL so strong."
It's kind of a strange argument — more philosophical than tangible — but Nardini is on to something regarding religion, pride and community. These entities go hand in hand, and when you have schools as old as St. Xavier and Elder, tradition and rivalry create a very competitive atmosphere. Throw in the financial means to maintain state-of-the-art facilities and equipment, and you have a situation where a solid coaching staff can run a high school program with the attention to detail of a professional franchise.
For a long time St. X had a slight advantage over its GCL competition as far as which students were eligible to attend the school. Elder, La Salle and Moeller are all members of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati, which until this year allowed students from specific elementary schools and parishes only to attend affiliated high schools.
Although high school coaches aren't allowed to recruit players, the fact that St. X was open to everyone — including public school students — gave it a much bigger drawing base. Even so, Schad says that kids don't come to St. X just to play football.
"They don't come here to play sports," he says. "They come here to go to school and to get a Jesuit Catholic education, and part of the Jesuit Catholic education is being good at sports, being good in the arts, being religious and being excellent in academics."
On the field at Nippert Stadium after a recent practice, University of Cincinnati offensive lineman Digger Bujnoch is more forthright regarding the importance of sports to fans and neighbors of his alma mater, Elder.
"When you go to high school games or even our games, you see little 3-, 4-year-olds walking around with Elder shirts on," Bujnoch says. "And you don't want to say they just think about football playing there, but it might be the truth."
Bujnoch's reference to kids wearing Elder shirts is a relevant symbol of neighborhood pride and the school's strong connection to the West Side. The Elder coaches make an effort to keep the neighborhood grade schools connected to their program by hosting players and coaches from the "feeder schools" for clinics and other events. The association starts early and stays with kids throughout their years at Elder.
"It's funny if you listen to our players," says Elder Head Coach Doug Ramsey, whose Panthers won back-to-back state titles in 2002 and 2003. "These guys are seniors and they're going at each other about what they did in a game in seventh, eighth grade. It's a big part of what they did in their life."
While schools like St. X, Elder and Moeller certainly have the dough to compete behind the scenes with any high school football program in the country, so do a lot of other private schools. The difference is that families, friends and neighbors have followed these school teams for so long that the level of fanaticism and pressure is heightened. If your grandfather played football for Elder, you'll probably take playing football for Elder seriously.
"I really think for the kids who end up playing football at places like Elder, Moeller, St. X, La Salle, Colerain — the schools that are successful — football is very important to them," Ramsey says. "It's not the most important thing in their life, but it's something that's a priority. I think when you have that kid you have a chance to be competitive all the time."
It starts early
A 7-year-old football player runs along the goal line before the Little Cards practice at St. Ann School Oct. 4. He is crying, and his oversized helmet bobs back and forth on his head as he jogs along, quietly sniffling and whining.
Whether he's being punished or simply demonstrating his displeasure with the customary warm-up lap, I find the scene hilarious. The boy slowly bobs his way around the entire field and then joins his teammates for practice.
The Little Cards practice twice a week, and each session includes six teams — one for each age between 6 and 11. Each coaching staff stays with one group of kids for six years and then hands them off to a middle school program.
Although some coaches have their own kids on their teams — Colerain High School Athletic Director Dan Bolden coaches his son Dan on the 7-year-old Little Cards team — most are just consummate football-teaching volunteers who take on another group once theirs moves on to middle school.
Formerly the Northside K of C Rebels, the organization isn't officially affiliated with Colerain High School. But it was a natural connection to make after so many of its kids went on to play at Colerain.
Billy Hawkins, known at practice as "Hawk," has coached in the Little Cards organization for more than 30 years and says coaching the same group for six straight years allows you to build on what the kids learn every year.
"What that does is gets a kid used to your system," Hawkins says. "By the time you get them to sixth grade they're pretty good football players."
Colerain Head Coach Tom Bolden came straight to the practice after coaching his Cardinals, who are currently ranked No. 10 in the country by USA Today. Two of his own children — 8-year-old Kyle and 6-year-old Luke — are Little Cards, and Bolden knows just about everyone at the practice. Many coaches and assistants are former Colerain players or parents.
Bolden spots a Cardinal helmet poking above the 11-year-old huddle on the back field. Number 84 stands about 6 inches taller than any of his peers, and Bolden can't help but think about his future at Colerain High.
"I can't wait to get him," Bolden says. "Tight end."
This well-organized youth football system is crucial to Colerain's success. As a public school, it has fewer resources to dedicate to its athletic programs than its private school rivals, although its booster association has been very successful at raising money for the athletic department.
Coincidentally or not, Colerain is one of the only area public schools that consistently competes with the GCL teams.
"We take great pride in that because we're a public school playing with our kids in our community," Bolden says. "Not only do we compete with the GCL, but we're able to win also, and we take great pride in that."
Naming the Little Cards after the high school team creates an allegiance similar to the one described by Ramsey at Elder. These kids already wear the red and white, and they interact with former Colerain players and coaches constantly. The back window of a minivan in the parking lot reads "I Bleed Red and White."
On the other side of the field, Don Goodman, a former University of Cincinnati football player and the father of current UC wide receiver and Colerain graduate Dominick Goodman, stands in front of his team of 10-year-olds. The coach hand signals what type of route each of his four wide receivers will run, and the players stare back at him in attention.
Spencer Henn takes the snap and tosses a quick screen pass to his running back Russell Rice, who slides outside the offensive line into what will be wide open space during a game. Standing on the sideline next to Bolden, I comment that there's no way this play can be defended.
"At that age?" he says. "Those kids won't know what hit them."
Small college success
Bob Johnson leans against his car in the College of Mount Saint Joseph parking lot with a table full of snacks in front of him. He has two coolers and 24 beers in the trunk.
It's halftime, the Mount leads Hanover College 35-7 and Johnson waits for his family and friends to return from the stands to take part in a little halftime tailgating action.
Johnson, a Westwood resident, started coming to Mount Saint Joseph games when his son Sam, a 2000 La Salle graduate, chose to attend MSJ and play football. Although Sam graduated in 2004, Johnson and his family still follow the program and attend every home game.
"It has that small college feel," Johnson says. "It's laid back and fun. Everybody knows each other, and we have a good time."
The Johnsons are a perfect example of the culture that Rod Huber has built at the Mount during his eight years as head coach. The school offers an affordable, friendly atmosphere without the huge crowds and advertising innuendo of professional sports.
The team is well-coached and has won its league the past three years, going 28-2 during the regular season and 18-1 in the conference during this time. And because so many of Huber's players are from Greater Cincinnati, families of former players are sticking around to watch other kids they know.
"We're very appreciative of the fact that the West Side embraces us, as well as the city of Cincinnati," Huber says. "It's obvious on any given Saturday when we're home and the stands are full. Kids don't play Division III football for the crowd, but it is a factor when they turn around and see the stands full."
Huber has long scoured the Cincinnati area for talented football players, and opposing coaches are probably discouraged when they compare the high school ranks near their colleges. Most of the Mount's roster is comprised of former Cincinnati high school players. Huber knows he doesn't have to go far to find well-coached and hard-working football players.
"We butter our bread with the 275 loop," Huber says.
Anderson grad Vince Palmer is the starting quarterback, and current starting running back Mike Lovell, a Lakota West grad, holds the school records for single-season and career rushing yards. Elder grad Alex Harbin recently won the league's defensive player-of-the-week award.
Last year one of Huber's assistants, Jim Hilvert, left the Mount for the head coaching job at Thomas More College in Crestview Hills. Familiar with the practices that helped turn around the MSJ program, Hilvert follows a similar plan at TMC: recruit the local players who slip through the Division I cracks.
Cincinnati area high school players are well-prepared for that next step, Hilvert says.
"When you're getting guys from the GCL or guys from public school playing at a high level, their adjustment period is a lot shorter to college football than a kid from a small town," he says. "They're able to pick up on the lingo, and obviously the playbook gets thicker, but it's an easier adjustment for them."
Through this past weekend's games, Mount Saint Joseph is 5-0 and looking to qualify for the Division III playoffs for the fourth straight year. Thomas More isn't as successful, with a 3-2 record, but had a Division III playoff appearance as recently as 2001.
MSJ and TMC play the annual Bridge Bowl for local bragging rights on Nov. 10 at the Mount's Schueler Field in Delhi.
The big boys
The St. X-Elder game featured three of the best players in Ohio: St. X running back Darius Ashley, St. X linebacker Fred Craig and Elder tight end Kyle Rudolph. None of them will attend the University of Cincinnati, as Craig has verbally committed to Stanford and Rudolph to Notre Dame; Ashley is rumored to be choosing between Louisville and Virginia.
UC has always had to compete for recruits with the likes of Ohio State, Michigan and Notre Dame, whose histories and traditions are enough to lure ambitious young football players from Greater Cincinnati. But with UC's recent inclusion in the Big East Conference, the Bearcats now have a better sell: Any UC team that wins the Big East title automatically qualifies for a Bowl Championship Series game, meaning a major New Year's Day bowl, a shot at the national championship and big bucks for the school.
"I think Cincinnati is a town with some deep roots when it comes to your own," says UC Head Coach Brian Kelly, "and I think the University of Cincinnati has to be regarded as, 'Hey, this is our football team. This is for our kids.' I felt that when I took the job here. It's pretty clear that you've got to keep your kids here."
UC's 17-member 2008 recruiting class, which includes players from Colerain and La Salle, is ranked 52nd in the country by scout.com, an organization that ranks college recruits and classes. Dave Berg, a recruiting analyst for scout.com and co-publisher of bearcatinsider.com, says that more focus should be on a recruiting class as a whole than on individual recruits. Getting players that fit your system is as important as landing the big-time recruits.
"You can't really go by stars and rankings in building a recruiting class," Berg says. "A couple years ago the main group of recruits are in the UC defense right now. They are true juniors who came in together: (Mike) Mickens, (Terrill) Byrd, (Andre) Revels."
Nevertheless, with UC currently 6-0, winning big games on national TV and rising steadily up the national rankings, Kelly and his staff have a better shot than ever to keep the top-tier kids home.
The roster already includes players from 15 Cincinnati area high schools, and some have prominent roles. Colerain graduates Byrd and Goodman are starters, along with Elder's Bujnoch. Fellow Panther Bradley Glatthaar sees a lot of playing time as well.
Standing on the field at Nippert Stadium after a recent practice, Kelly acknowledges that having former Colerain Head Coach Kerry Coombs on his staff certainly helps the team's recruiting presence in the area. Coombs' Cardinals won the state championship in 2004 and are doing well this season under his former assistant, Tom Bolden.
But Kelly points out that five of his assistant coaches are from Ohio, so UC is well-represented all over one of the country's best high school football states. The biggest problem with recruiting in Ohio and the Midwest is the presence of Big Ten schools.
"We feel like we can compete with anybody in the Big Ten," Kelly says. "Michigan and Ohio State obviously are two teams that make it much more difficult, but they can't take them all. I think the charge to our staff is that we can't lose kids to Minnesota. We can't lose kids to Illinois, Purdue. ... We know Michigan and Ohio State have a reputation and they're going to be hard to beat, but they can't take them all."
Berg, who is responsible for scouting Ohio, Indiana and parts of Kentucky for scout.com, says UC is continuing the successful run of recruiting started by former coach Mark Dantonio and that there are enough quality players in Greater Cincinnati to compete — as long as the staff finds the ones who fit their system. And Berg says UC has done well so far.
"UC as a whole is doing a great job of recruiting Southwest Ohio and Ohio in general," Berg says. "Several kids they have in this next class are not really highly rated, but I can tell you they're underrated and they'll fit the system Brian Kelly runs and will have success on the field."
Success on the field translates to a much easier sell when the UC staff hits the road to recruit. Coombs, who left Colerain last year to coach UC's defensive backs, knows that some of the best football players in the country are just a short drive from Clifton.
"We really believe that if you put a thumbtack in the middle of our stadium and made a radius of 100 miles around it, you could find every football player you would ever want," Coombs says. ©
Catch Greater Cincinnati's Amazing Football Teams
The No. 15 ranked UC Bearcats take on rival Louisville Saturday night at Nippert Stadium for UC's Homecoming. Louisville won the Big East last year and played in the Orange Bowl but is only 3-3 this season, so the opportunity for UC to win and move event further up the rankings is at hand. The atmosphere will be electric, but if you don't already have tickets you're out of luck. The game is sold out.
Other upcoming opportunities to watch good football in person:
· Mount Saint Joseph, ranked No. 20 in Division III, plays home games Saturday against Franklin College, Oct. 27 against Defiance College and Nov. 10 against Thomas More College.
· Thomas More plays home games Oct. 20 against Geneva College and Nov. 3 against Washington & Jefferson.
· St. Xavier, ranked No. 1 in Ohio and No. 2 nationally, plays just one more regular season game in town: Moeller at UC's Nippert Stadium Oct. 26. Then come the playoffs.
· Colerain, ranked No. 2 in Ohio and No. 10 nationally, plays its final regular season home game Oct. 19 vs. Hamilton. Then come the playoffs.
· Highlands High School, ranked No. 1 in Kentucky, plays its final three regular season games on the road. Then come the playoffs.