By Joseph Santoliquito/CBS Sports
PHILADELPHIA — It is a tiny brick building that sits on the corner of 45th and Chestnut streets in West Philadelphia. From the exterior, it echoes a simpler time, before things like consolidation and laptops and smartphones came into the common parlance. There are parts of its antiquated interior that hint too of books and chalkboards, of old-school teaching methods.
West Philadelphia Catholic High School, or West Catholic as it’s known in Philly, has been around for a while. The school dates back to before World War I, back to 1916 when the Christian Brothers opened the school for boys (since gone co-ed in 1989). On Jan. 5, 2012, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is scheduled to hold a special meeting that will most likely close the school, along with a handful of other high schools in the Philadelphia area.
It’s something the players on the Burrs’ football team often talk about. It’s an interesting looming cloud that follows West Catholic, the defending PIAA Class AA (small school) state football champions. It’s like staring at death, since the last game they play could be the last game ever played by a West Catholic football team.
The players know it. Maybe it’s why there are tears in their eyes when they’re too hurt to stand, because they want to get on the field for their teammates and friends. For West Catholic. Maybe it’s why West Catholic is playing to be “forever champions,” because to repeat as state champions is a crown West Catholic would never relinquish.
“We know the talk about the school closing, but we don’t really talk about it a lot among ourselves,” admitted West Catholic star tailback David Williams, a bruising, 6-foot, 195-pound junior with blazing speed who’s already received scholarship offers from Pittsburgh, Maryland, Connecticut, Rutgers, Temple, Virginia, Purdue and Notre Dame. “The fact the school may be closing is in the back of our minds a little bit, though. It motivates me a lot. I want to go out with a bang. I don’t want to see West Catholic close. The school has been great to me. It has a great tradition and we want to make sure, if it does close, we add to that tradition of winning another state championship.”
Williams, along with senior offensive/defensive lineman Mike Makor, have been through this before as members of North Catholic’s football team when that school closed two years ago. Williams is slightly concerned his transcript is going to be checkered with three different schools in four years — which if anyone bothered to look would notice that the first two high schools he attended were closed.
“Yeah, I’m the guy who closes all the schools,” said Williams, laughing. “I know what it looks like, I could be at three different schools in four years. That doesn’t look too good, but these are schools that are closing and it’s something I can’t do anything about.”
West Catholic coach Brian Fluck would like to do something about it. But with dwindling enrollment, and high costs to run the school, that tide may be too high to stem. He has been the architect of the Burrs’ resurgent football program. It was once in a dormant state, playing on a glass-strewn field in West Philly with hardly any interest. Fluck injected a new attitude. With the open enrollment policy of the Philadelphia Catholic League, he went out and sold the school to local communities, to anyone willing to hear him out.
Fluck built a winner.
And though West Catholic is tiny, he hasn’t been afraid to tangle with the big boys. This season, West started the year 0-3, but it was an 0-3 against powerhouse Archbishop Wood (last year’s Class AAA state semifinalist), LaSalle (last year’s Class AAAA state finalist) and talented Roman Catholic. Since then, West Catholic has won eight straight games.
Under Fluck, who is in his 13th year, little West Catholic has captured six straight Catholic League (small school) championships, won four straight District 12 Class AA (Philadelphia city) championships, made 10 straight playoff appearances, appeared in the state finals in 2008, appeared in the state semifinals in 2009 and topped it by winning the PIAA 2010 Class AA state championship last year.
Two years ago, Fluck was contacted about taking over the St. Joseph’s Prep job, a more lucrative position at a thriving, robust school. Fluck, West Catholic’s admissions director, turned the offer down, partly because of his loyalty to former Prep coach Gil Brooks (“I owe a great debt to Coach Brooks, who’s a special person in my life for teaching me the ins and outs and coaching,” Fluck said), partly because of his commitment to the players and students at West Catholic, an inner-city school that provides inner-city children an educational opportunity they otherwise might not get.
“It would have been hard to take the Prep job at that time,” Fluck said. “I’m very close to my kids at West. I listen to their problems and I’m a mentor to a lot of these kids that don’t have fathers. Some of these kids are around the school more than they are at home. Each year, you think about leaving, and then we get a whole new group of freshmen and you want to stay there for them. We give these kids individual attention, and there aren’t many schools like that. There is a likelihood a move to close is going to be made.
“These kids know the talk about West closing, the administration knows it, but my job is to keep the kids focused and looking ahead. Oh, I’ll admit it’s in the back of my mind, that the next game could be the last West Catholic ever plays. The kids realize this is it, it’s why they want to play for their friends, for their families and for West Catholic. They’re proud to be football players at West Catholic. They don’t want that to ever end. They want to win another state title and make that the last game West Catholic ever plays. In their minds, that’s very special to them.”
How many times do you hear a kid say they love the high school they attend?
Walk through the halls of West Catholic and you’d hear it frequently. From quarterback Jaleel Reed to Makor, who travels 90 minutes round trip by bus and train to go to West Catholic from North Philadelphia every day, to TJ Waters, the only returning two-way starter who used to go to West Catholic games in grade school.
Reed missed last year’s state championship game because of an injury, watching instead from TV. He had tears in his eyes because he wanted to return to West Catholic’s 30-23 District 12 comeback victory over Edward Bok Vo-Tech on Nov. 12, though he couldn’t stand up after getting hurt.
“We know there is talk; we hear about the school closing all of the time, and it’s definitely motivating to me,” Reed said. “We want to go out as champions again.”
Makor, who played guard on West’s 2010 state championship team, still rests his head up against the train window every morning to catch a few minutes of sleep as he’s done the last two years on his way to school. When North Catholic closed, he had serious concerns about taking the long commute back and forth to West. He’s adjusted well.
“I’ve never missed my stop because I was asleep on the train,” Makor said laughing. “I’m glad I came here. Everyone loves it at West Catholic, everyone is real close here. I think that’s what brings everyone together. I don’t want the school to close. I think it is going to close. There is something special knowing it’s the last year. That’s very motivating. It’s real big to go out as a winner. No one can ever take it away.”
Waters may have a stronger connection to West Catholic than anyone on the team. A teacher used to bring him to games as a child. He grew up with the program. It’s always been his dream to play for the Burrs.
“That’s where my bond for the school grew,” said Waters, who’s entertaining offers from Army, Navy and VMI, with Delaware, Villanova and New Hampshire showing interest. “We’re aware the school is up for closing. There is some pressure in knowing that, but I think we do well with that kind of pressure. You know when you put on that West Catholic helmet you’re representing family, friends, the whole school. I love this school. It’s done some good things for me. If the school closes, I will be sad about that. I won’t have a home to go back to again.”