Century after 1st WPIAL title, Wilkinsburg tries to 'reintroduce our history'
The football player strikes a pose reminiscent of the Heisman, but time has tarnished the trophy to a faded green similar to the Statue of Liberty.
As Dremar Everette cradled the relic in his hands during practice at Wilkinsburg's Graham Field, he finally grasped the history he was holding and the tradition that began with his high school.
“It actually feels very special,” said Everette, a 6-foot-4, 236-pound sophomore tight end-defensive end for the Tigers. “I actually feel like I'm making history right now just holding it. I feel like I'm a part of history, holding this championship trophy in my hands.
“I've seen it lots of times, every day at school when I'm walking to class. I thought it was just a random trophy just sitting in a trophy case. It makes me feel like I have pride in my school. I've always had pride in my school, but I have much more pride.”
It was the embodiment of a phrase Wilkinsburg coach Michael Fulmore often shares during history lessons like these with his Tigers: If you want the glory, you have to know the story.
One hundred years ago, Wilkinsburg won the inaugural Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League football championship. It was awarded the trophy, presented by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Syracuse University alumni association. The Tigers would claim the first three WPIAL titles, in 1914, '15 and '16. They would win again in 1922 and '57, but have gone more than a half-century without winning another championship.
What was the first WPIAL football powerhouse has been one of its worst programs the past decade. Wilkinsburg is 14-76 the past 10 seasons, including three winless campaigns. It went 23 months between the 499th victory in school history and the 500th, in September 2010.
The Tigers haven't had a winning season since 2002, made the WPIAL playoffs since 2001 or won a playoff game since 1998.
“One of the first things I did was try to reintroduce our history and put it in the forefront,” Fulmore said. “We talk all the time what historic Graham Field means, that this dirt has been fertilized with a lot of blood, sweat and tears.
“One of the challenges is to change that expectation. Winning breeds winning, but losing breeds losing. That cycle is very hard to break. That's where we use the rally of our tradition of Graham Field, of that trophy, of the tradition of the Tigers.”
‘Dealing with this neighborhood'
So much has changed about Wilkinsburg, a borough adjacent to Pittsburgh's East End, in the past century: Everything from its complexion — its first WPIAL football champions were all white, the current team is all black — to a population that has been cut almost in half to its perception as a crime-ridden community.
Once known as The Holy City because of its high concentration of churches, it became synonymous with the LAW (Larimer Avenue-Wilkinsburg) gang in the mid-1990s. The school district suffered, and is one of the poorest and most troubled districts in the state. Wilkinsburg was the state's most violent school in 2012, with a rate of 47.23 incidents per 100 students — which has since improved — and had the state's lowest School Performance Profile score for 2012-13, according to the state Department of Education.
These were the challenges Fulmore faced when he became the school's behavioral intervention crisis facilitator five years ago. This is his third season as Wilkinsburg's head football coach, ending a string of three consecutive one-year tenures.
The Tigers opened the first day of PIAA-mandated heat acclimation practices with just 11 players. Six players were attending funeral services for a friend killed in a shooting. Three players are homeless, Fulmore said. Several others have to wear house-arrest ankle bracelets.
“That's just everyday life in Wilkinsburg,” Fulmore said. “They're dealing with this neighborhood. Every one of these kids has a story.”
When loud pops rang out in the distance during that Aug. 6 practice, the Tigers never flinched and continued running drills. Minutes later, the sirens of two police cars and an ambulance blared as they drove by Graham Field, responding to a call that a man was shot on Wesley Street. Before practice was over, Micah Goodman, 41, was pronounced dead.
“We don't worry about it,” said Stephon Byrd, a junior guard-linebacker. “We're used to it.”
What Fulmore stresses is that Graham Field, and the football team, should serve as a safe haven for Wilkinsburg students. But it's one that requires a commitment, some sacrifice and a different standard.
“It takes a lot to walk through that gate, but once you do I tell them, ‘You're a football player,' ” Fulmore said. “We have talks about the qualities that make us good people. This is their opportunity to experience success. If you're a successful football player, you can be a successful person.”
Success, however, has been in short supply.
So have students. According to PIAA enrollment figures for 2013, Wilkinsburg had 300 students (151 boys) in grades nine-12. But Fulmore said almost half of those students attend charter schools, leaving only about 75 boys at the high school.
“There's always a big deal made about our numbers,” Fulmore said. “My kids are all over the place. It's not the kids that are walking the halls that are hurting us; it's the kids walking the halls at other schools.”
What's worse, the Tigers have lost talented players to other schools. Wilkinsburg natives Reggie Mitchell and Dennis Briggs both attended Shady Side Academy and now play at Pitt. The Jackson twins, James and Timothy, attend Allderdice and led the Dragons to the City League championship game as sophomores last year.
“It makes a big difference,” said Everette, who played with the Jacksons in pee-wee football. “If we had those two kids right now, we'd have 30 or 40 kids. They'd say they want to play with the Jacksons. We're trying to bring a sense of pride to the school through the football team.”
Fulmore implores upon his team that while he has only 17 players, he has 17 who can play. Doubling the numbers would afford the luxury of depth so everyone wouldn't have to play both ways and on every special teams snap, as well as providing fresh legs for fourth-quarter rallies.
“I would have 30 kids,” Fulmore said, “and we would have another one of those trophies.”
For now, Fulmore sets small benchmarks and attainable goals, focusing on what's working for Wilkinsburg instead of what isn't. The Tigers are young but talented, a building block for the program. So their coach lets them hold a century-old trophy, as both a reminder of Wilkinsburg's past and a challenge to win one of their own in the future.
“It gives me motivation to work hard so we can get back to winning championships and add another trophy,” said Gennaro Coleman, a sophomore receiver-safety. “It makes me want to go down as a Tiger who won.”