Football has a way of bringing people, schools, and communities together like no other game.
“I never played a single snap of football in my entire life. But in high school, every Friday I was at the game,” says Josh Varno, athletic director for Crispus Attucks. “My buddies and I would hop in a car and we’d go to away games. That was a part of high school that I cherish still today.”
When Varno took the job at the historic inner city school in Indianapolis, it was without football. Attucks last fielded a team in 1985. And they joked that they’d been undefeated for the last 31 seasons.
But Varno was determined to change that.
“Part of being a high school student is Friday night football. Coming out, watching a game under the lights, cheerleaders, the marching band, homecoming week and homecoming court, that’s a part of high school that every kid should experience. So, when I came on board here and we didn’t have football, that was the first thing I said we needed to do here for our students.”
Bob Ashworth is right where he belongs – on a football field. He’s pacing, shouting, and encouraging all at the same time. It’s the day before the Crispus Attucks Tigers play their first football game in 31 years. And the coach emeritus and mentor coach has a lot of ground to cover.
“Football is a great game. It teaches a lot of life skills and a lot of life lessons and it’s something that I think really helps young men understand that it’s necessary to work hard and there’s a lot of discipline that’s necessary for life,” he says. “It teaches them when you get knocked down, you’ve got to get back up.”
But right now, all he wants is the offense to get in formation for a two-point conversion. There’s confusion on the field, in part because some of his players have never played organized football.
After teaching and coaching at four different Indiana high schools, Ashworth retired two years ago. These days, he’s the least retired person there is. A teacher shortage lured him back to Attucks, where he was recruited to help out with an even bigger challenge.
“I came over here to sub and Mr. Varno had that dream of getting football started and he started asking me for help and advice and those sorts of things. And he got me kind of fired up about it,” he says. “I got more and more to know the kids, I got more excited for them and felt that they should have football.”
His message to parents is simple.
“I can’t promise your kid won’t sprain his ankle. I can’t promise you he won’t get a cut, an abrasion, a bruise, maybe even a broken bone. But I can guarantee you every day from 2:30 to 6:30, he won’t be riding around in a car with a bunch of kids doing something bad, he won’t be smoking dope, he won’t be running with people who are bad influences, he won’t be under the influence of a gang, he’ll be here learning some real life lessons and he’ll be safe.”
There are a lot more appealing football jobs than the one Derrick (Troy) Moore signed up for as head coach of the Crispus Attucks Tigers. But there’s not one he could be more excited about.
“Of course, everybody wants to coach football. But not everybody wants to take on the challenges of the beginning stages. Everybody wants to come on after everything is already established, which makes it pretty easy. But starting here, I believe in starting a good foundation before you move on.”
Moore is building a foundation he hopes will last long past his years. It’s truly a grass roots effort. He’s starting from the ground up – with players and equipment.
“This is my first year,” says Lamar Willis, a senior. And not just his first year on the team – it’s his first year playing football. “My teammates, my school, they asked me to come out and help and I helped.”
Coach Moore has a few things on his side – one is enthusiasm.
“Even if we have 16 guys out there and they have to play Iron Man football, they’re going to do it,” he says. “And they’re going to have a smile on their face every time and they’re going to be motivated.”
The other is strong community support.
“We reached out to a lot of people, but ultimately the Colts were the ones that answered the call.”
A lot has changed at Crispus Attucks over the years. It opened a segregated school in 1927. At the time, it was the only high school for black students in Indianapolis. The school thrived in its downtown location and in 1955, Attucks won the state championship in basketball, the first all-black school in the country to do so. Attucks closed in the mid-80s due to declining enrollment. It reopened and in 2006, it became Crispus Attucks Medical Magnet High School, serving students grade six through 12.
Amidst all the change, one thing remains – a strong sense of pride for an inner city school with deep historical roots.
On a grassy overgrown field with concrete bleachers covered in ivy, a new chapter begins at Crispus Attucks. They’re back in the game – of football. And just like the sport, it took teamwork to get here.
“It’s unbelievable. We just wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Colts, if it wasn’t for some of the other organizations that stepped up, this would not be possible. So, we all know standing out here today that it’s because of our community partners that we have this opportunity,” Varno says.
“The Colts have helped us in wonderful ways,” says Moore. “Honestly, I think they’ve supplied just about every piece of equipment that we have.”
“I didn’t know if it was actually going to execute or not,” says Hunter Bryant, a junior on the team. “I found out about all the stuff that had been given to us. We had a meeting the second day of school and I was like, ‘Yep. It’s really going to happen.’ So, it was really exciting.”
“Mr. Irsay and the Colts have had this willingness to help us. The Colts have really, really helped us,” says Ashworth.
And not just with equipment.
“Indiana has always been a basketball state. But Central Indiana high school football is phenomenal. And the reason it’s phenomenal is because of the interest in the Colts and the help of the Colts. They just established a whole new culture here,” he says.
It’s the last wish of a man who plans to retire for good someday. Coach Ashworth wanted to see football return to Attucks. And it has.
“One of my philosophies is always leave it a better place. Leave the world a better place. And that’s what I always try to do. I always try to be a good teacher and I always try to be a good coach, and I always try to go above and beyond to help kids.”