Dallas Spruce returns from 'death penalty'

Dallas Spruce players are preparing for the school's first varsity season in two years. Travis L. Brown/ESPNDallas.com

The term “death penalty,” when related to the disbanding of a school’s football team, is not unfamiliar to Dallas sports fans. In 1987, SMU’s entire season was canceled because of repeated NCAA violations.

Dallas H. Grady Spruce High School football coach Carl Richardson feels his athletes have gone through the same fate.

In 2008, the Dallas Independent School District reconstituted Spruce, taking all 10th and 11th graders out of the school and canceling varsity sports for two years. Senior athletes in ’08 were allowed to transfer to other DISD schools. The drastic changes were made because the school failed to reach academic standards, Dallas ISD athletic director Jeff Johnson said.

“To the kids that left, it was a big disappointment and we can’t get them back,” Richardson said. “That year we were going to have a great season. We went two rounds in the playoffs the year before that happened and we were returning 18 starters.”

Now, two years later, the programs have been reinstated, and a small but dedicated group of juniors and Richardson hope to return from the sports grave successfully. Richardson said he’s proud of the opportunity his team has this season, bringing varsity sports back to Spruce.

“It’s an honor because I feel we received the death penalty,” Richardson said. “I’m a graduate of this school so I, the community and the kids are embracing it and we’re trying getting ready for a tough schedule.”

The athletes that remained at Spruce were incoming freshman in ’08, unable to transfer under the DISD’s ruling and forced to work toward a goal they had to wait two years to see come to fruition. Now as juniors they are the oldest players on the team and have garnered respect from not only the coaches and the community, but from the young players they have entering the school this year.

“We didn’t have anyone to look up to, so we had to teach ourselves how to do stuff,” junior safety David Montelongo said. “And now that we’ve learned how to do that stuff we have young incomers that look up to us.”

“We had to come up here on our own and take care of business,” junior running back Daniel Coleman said. “We really didn’t practice in the summer. We had to start from scratch every summer and come up here and lift weights without the coaches and be a leader and a team builder.”

With complete uncertainty on how this inexperienced team will fair at the varsity level in District 12-4A, many schools have already slated Spruce as their 2010 homecoming opponent. Schools have even designated games as early as the third week of the season to be their homecoming game against Richardson’s team, he said.

“We’re going to be everyone’s homecoming. We don’t have a choice. We have to line up and play varsity football,” Richardson told his team after a recent practice.

The players understand what they can do with this opportunity.

“Homecoming is really a good environment to play in,” junior linebacker Robert Aguilera said. “Motivation and adrenaline kick in. We’re seeing that it’s their game and their time, but it’s really not. We’re going to give it our hardest.”

According to Richardson, this season is not about wins and losses; it’s about celebrating the effort these few juniors have put forth and working hard to build a varsity team at Spruce for the future. It’s a goal that resonates with the leaders of his team.

”We’re going to go out there and play hard and give it our all and hopefully come out with a good season,” Coleman said. “Losing, we can lose and it makes us a better team. Me, personally, I don’t like losing, but I just want to get better.”