Editor's note: First of an occasional series examining Denver Public School athletic programs. Today, a look at Denver West, four schools under one sprawling roof that is using football to help bring pride back to the Cowboys' campus.
On an October weekday, Denver West High School athletic director Larry Gile rounded up the sixth-grade boys who weren't selected to make the trip to Kepner Middle School for a flag football game. He took them to the artificial turf practice field behind the history-drenched school adjacent to Speer Boulevard, just south of downtown. There, Gile told the downcast boys they would have a fun game — not against another school, but among themselves.
One of the disappointed boys piped up. "We've been practicing for nothing," he said. "We paid 10 bucks!"
Undeterred, Gile asked the boys if they knew who Michael Jordan was. Of course, they said, nodding. He told them Jordan once had been cut from his high school team. So what's the lesson here, boys?
"That he got cut and never gave up," one boy said.
The players divided into two teams, and soon they were cavorting in an intrasquad flag game. Yes, these boys are sixth-graders, attending classes in a traditional high school building. The reasons for that involve what some consider innovation, others as desperation, because it involves splitting the school in two, and essentially using separate curriculum models. West is a struggling school hoping to use football as a uniting force. If these boys stick with it, they could be playing tackle football for the West High Cowboys in a few years, battling the competitive disadvantages most DPS programs face.
In a changing school, in a changing DPS, football still has its place.
"We're really trying to change the community's perception of us," West football coach Leon Garcia said. "We're letting them know there are good kids here, they're working hard, and these coaches and teachers care at this school. We as coaches do a lot of fundraising and we're with these kids six days a week. The only reason it's not seven is that CHSAA says I can't."
West's football program has struggled mightily in recent years — as have most DPS schools — with the city programs now spread among four Colorado High School Activities Association levels. Playing in Class 2A, the Cowboys went 3-6 this season. Yet there were battles won, on several levels, at an evolving school.
Under the West roof, two new schools — West Generations and West Leadership — have opened this academic year, reaching down as far as sixth and as high as ninth grade. West Generations is operating under the model provided by the nonprofit Generations Schools. It's more traditional, with emphasis on core academics leading to the workplace and a 200-day school year. West Leadership, operating under a model devised by the College Board organization, will emphasize college prep. Eventually, both West Generations and West Leadership will be grades 6-12.
West Legacy, the traditional high school, will operate until that phasing-in is complete. Finally, West Career Academy, mostly for students who have dropped out and later returned to school, will remain open.
So, in a way, West is four schools under a
"How often do our kids' paths really cross?" Gile asked. "At lunch, at a couple of all-school assemblies, homecoming. But that's what unites us. That's where we all come together. That's where we're all Cowboys."
And there might be hope, especially if hope is defined as something other than wins and losses.
Signs of a comeback
In a cozy little stadium in Sheridan on Oct. 19, the Cowboys' meeting with the Sheridan High Rams provided a reminder that the DPS programs aren't alone in their struggles. Sheridan had only 19 players suited up in the Colorado League game. In contrast, West had nearly 50 players in uniform, the Cowboys' ranks bolstered by players who attend the DPS's nearby high-ambition Denver Center for International Studies, which doesn't have a football team.
The Cowboys beat Sheridan 28-0 to finish 3-2 in league play. Sophomore running back Brandon Martinez rushed for 172 yards on 24 carries and cracked the 1,000-yard benchmark.
"This is like my second family," Martinez said. "Like we say, 'One heart, one team, one beat.' "
Cowboys quarterback Dylan Hoffman, a junior who carries a 4.52 cumulative GPA at the DCIS, started taking a knee with nearly three minutes remaining. The Cowboys, on the other side of the equation so many times in recent years, are prone to be merciful when they get a chance.
Gile, who doubles as a vice principal, watched from the sideline. A veteran of the DPS who also has dabbled in college coaching at Adams State, he's in his second academic school year at West.
"There was a lack of culture around sports and competition," Gile said. "We wanted to change that and build the sports programs. We've been lucky. We've had some really good kids who have made it kind of cool to have some pride to be at West. ... Allowing us to play at a level where we can compete is huge. You see these guys now. They're enjoying life, they're flying around, and they're having fun."
He cited the Cowboys' uniforms and equipment, all more than adequate. Grants from the Timothy and Bernadette Marquez Foundation have helped. The school's new weight and training room, scheduled to be dedicated soon, came after Gile wrote up a grant proposal, and the Timothy and Bernadette Marquez Foundation again signed off.
Also helping is the commitment from the area's professional sports teams' financial backing of a Denver Prep League program, helping fund sports on the middle-school level. That has helped get participation up in the feeder programs so DPS athletes aren't so raw when they reach the high school level.
Garcia served two years as an assistant under his close friend, former head coach Mike Anthony, then moved up.
"God bless Mike, we were doing everything we could to get kids out and change the culture, trying to get them excited about playing football, which was really hard," Garcia said.
There still are battles to fight, including attempting to improve the school's image.
Battling an image problem
Impressive and new Golden Triangle and downtown high-rises dominate the skyline as the Cowboys practiced in the unlined and bumpy Sunken Gardens Park next to the school preparing for their final 2012 regular-season game, against Ridgeview Academy. On this day it was the soccer team's turn to use the artificial turf practice field on the school grounds. The backdrop may be glittering but the residential areas immediately south and west of the school still are considered to be struggling.
Even West's proponents acknowledge the school has an image problem in a time of open enrollment, with students able to attend any high school with room for them. The school was founded in 1883 and has been in the current building since 1926, the same year the Cowboys won the championship of the Denver-Boulder High School Athletic League. The black-and-white pictures on the hallway walls are reminders of different times and a different Denver.
"I hate to say this, but from the media to the community, it was, 'Oh, you don't want to be at that school,' so kids wouldn't go," Garcia said. "We have kids in our neighborhood who go to other schools. They live down the street and we see them playing on football teams somewhere else. It's kind of sad."
That said, a handful of the Cowboys' best football players this fall don't attend West, or don't live in the neighborhood, or both.
Brandon Martinez lives in southeast Lakewood, with his janitor mother and siblings.
"People doubted me because they said it's not a good school," he said. "They don't go here. They don't know. I think it's a very good school. The people here are really friendly and there are good teachers. And in football? We're not the same, old West. We're getting better and we believe in ourselves."
Long days and bus rides
The Cowboys' best lineman and co-captain, senior Aquain Wright, resides in Montbello. He attended Greenlee Elementary and Middle School in the West area. When his mother, Angela Gregory, moved the family to Montbello before his freshman year, Aquain convinced her he should attend high school in the old neighborhood.
"A lot of my friends go here, and that's why I wanted to stay," he said.
During the season, Wright left his home at 6:30 in the morning and rode two RTD buses to get to West, and sometimes didn't get home after practice until 9 p.m. He shrugged about that, then nodded at the room where his teammates were in an after-school study hall and team meeting session that precedes each practice.
"That's my family right there," he said. "From the fights we have to the joking around with each other ... that's family."
The "family" included those DCIS students who made the short trip from that school to West for the after-school study hall and meeting, and then practiced. The Cowboys' captains this season included DCIS students Hoffman, the quarterback, and Brandon Arnold, a fullback and West's second-leading rusher. Hoffman's parents are divorced, and he splits time living with them in Denver.
"I was a very eccentric fifth-grader," he said. "I did read a lot — Mother Jones to the New York Times. I got really interested in politics and international relations. So when I was looking for middle schools to go to, I felt DCIS would be the best fit for me. I started playing football in the eighth grade with West's futures team, so a lot of the guys I played with coming up are the guys I'm playing with right now. It's a sport, but I sometimes feel the experience transcends the athletic way of life."
Hoffman hopes to attend Harvard. In the meantime, he's enjoying attending the DCIS and playing football at West.
"I do take a lot of it to heart when I hear what people say about West High School," he said. "Most of the literature I read about West High School places it in a negative light. I take that personally because I've gotten to know a lot of people here and like them very much."
He said the Cowboys are progressing in football.
"My senior year, I want it to be all about winning," he said. "I want to win a state championship in football, I want to win a state championship in debate, and I want to place nationally in debate."
A loss, and lessons learned
If everything had gone perfectly in the final weekend of the regular season, the Cowboys might have made the Class 2A playoffs. Instead, Hoffman suffered a broken collarbone in the second quarter, the Cowboys fell 28-8 to Ridgeview Academy, and their season was over. Their three-win season put them in the middle of the pack among DPS programs.
Gile and Garcia are adamant that they've been promised that even after all the changes in the school structure are phased in, there will be a West Cowboys football team. As the team pictures in the yearbooks dating back over a century in the West archives attest, some high school experiences — including football — are universal and timeless.
Terry Frei: 303-954-1895, email@example.com or twitter.com/terryfreidenver