A Place Called Warrensville
The Spirit of the Tiger
Back in Cleveland, Oh, where I’m from, there is a place on the southeast side called Warrensville. I grew up there. It’s the place where I made lifelong friends and created unforgettable memories. It’s the place where unimaginable accomplishments took place but not first without experiencing unremitting struggles. This is a short story about the spirit and the people of Warrensville seen through my eyes. It’s the story about the Spirit of the Tiger.
For as long as I can remember, our little small town inside the big city of Cleveland had always been stuck, making very little progress. A town that had people with incredible potential but not enough points in the win column. The year was 1999, I was a freshman in high school and our schools standardized test scores were one of the worst in the state, our sports teams were sub-par, and our community as a whole had a disproportionate number of renters compared to home owners as there was a lack of wealth.
Warrensville was a true product of Cleveland. It was a segregated community as many of the communities in Cleveland were. At the time, white people lived in places like Parma, Beechwood, Mentor, and Shaker Heights while minorities lived in areas such as East Cleveland, Glenville, Harvard, Warrensville Heights, or the West Side. In many cases, like my family, some parents were able to save just enough money to get out of areas like St. Clair and Kinsman in order to move to the “Heights” (Cleveland Heights, Warrensville Heights, Maple Heights) which was the “step up” and where crime was a tad bit lower. But collectively, Warrensville had it’s struggles.
Moral was high that first football game against Cleveland Heights High School. We were playing under the lights with a pack crowd at our home field. Everyone came to see two of the most notable standout running backs in the state that were being highly recruited by all the Big 10 schools. Duane Griffin was on our team, we called him “Debo” because the guy was a physical specimen who could run past you or run over you if you stood in his way; and he looked like “Debo” from the movie Friday. Cleveland Heights had and an incredibly lightning fast running back named Tony Starks. Tony was tall, about 6'2, and weighed about 220lbs. The kid was quick when he hit the hole and like a deer when he bounced to the outside.
The game didn’t go that well for us. In fact, we got blew out, maybe 42–14, with Debo scoring both touchdowns. And that was pretty much how the rest of our season went. We may have won a couple of games but I think we ended the season 2–8.
At school, test scores were plummeting—teachers, parents, administrators, and the school board were all concerned about where we were heading as the future of society. Frequently, mass fights would break out in school, after school, at games, and around town as kids would form neighborhood gangs (Longbrook, Banbury, and Walford to name a few) and claim to own a particular territory around Warrensville. Not only was our community suffering from a lack of success but it was also becoming increasingly more dangerous.
Our principal, Mr. Bowman, was certainly not pleased and he and other key leaders began to implement new policies to enforce change over the next three years. One of the first actions taken was to create an alternative school for all the kids who lacked the discipline to be in a traditional setting. Next, there were security guards hired to patrol the hallways and enforce the law. Lastly, Mr. Bowman asked everyone: teachers, coaches, parents, cafeteria professionals, security guards, I mean EVERYONE to put more time and more effort into helping us students succeed.
It was my sophomore year of high school and things were slowly changing. Our football team’s record didn’t reflect the talent that was associated with the team but you could certainly tell that there was a new and very positive perspective beginning to make way. The school was really excited about basketball season as two of Ohio’s leading basketball standouts had transferred to Warrensville. Eric Sanders was from Solon, he was strong, athletic, and he could rebound and dunk over most Divison I collegiate players. Then there was Julius “Juby” Johnson from, Garfield Heights, and he was a star. The kid was the perfect ball player. He was about 6'6, he could dribble, shoot, pass, and rebound. Every school in the country wanted him.
Test scores were still low and teachers and administrators were all still pushing students to give a better effort; and explain to us all that a future was possible outside of Warrensville. Two of the most effective teachers at conveying this message were Mr. Evans and Ms. Coley.
Mr. Evans didn’t say a whole lot but when he did you’d better listen. His son was a standout wide receiver at Shaker Heights named Jamison Evans, who got a full scholarship to Purdue University. Mr. Evans would talk about the importance of working hard everyday and mastering the little things. I would hinge on his every word because I knew that what he had to say was like gold. All the students respected him and appreciated his advice because it was clear, concise, and no bullshit.
Ms. Coley was beyond amazing. There’s no word I can use to describe her. I tear up every time I think of her as she was a teacher, like many of the teachers we had at Warrensville, who cared. She was tough. Everyone knew that you couldn’t get one over on Ms. Coley. Better come correct or don’t come at all. She was like a mom, adviser, and the straight talk friend that everyone needs in their life all wrapped in one. I can remember our track team had made it to the State Finals in my senior year and I was part of two of the relay teams. However, my time there was a bit stressful because I had not yet scored well on either the ACT or SAT test. Ms. Coley decided to ride down early to Dayton, Oh, with the team to help me with test preparation. While my teammates were out having a good time and enjoying the experience, I was back at the hotel room with Ms. Coley getting quizzed over and over with prep-questions for the test that I was scheduled to take the next morning before the State meet at the University of Dayton. Needless to say, as a result of her help, I later found out that I scored well on the test. Thank you Ms. Coley.
The year 2000 seemed to be the tipping point for not only our school but the entire Warrensville community. The basketball team was very good. The team ended up becoming State Champions. The whole community would travel together in support. The team knew, and so did the rest of us, that this was more then just about basketball. This journey we were on was to prove to ourselves and others that we could win; and from that moment forward things began to change.
My junior year of high school scores began to change for the better. Warrensville was on an incline and everyone noticed it. There was a sense of pride in the air and everyone was working to get better…to do better.
Our football team was making strides. We got a new coach from Wisconsin named Dan Thorpe. Guys on the team were a bit skeptical at first. For years Virgil Walker was the head football coach at Warrensville Heights High School. He had great teams in the past and we were all confident that he could build another one with us, but the leadership had other thoughts in mind. Coach Thorpe had a very unorthodox approach. He ran an offense called the Wing-T and it was all about misdirection and confusing your opponent. We were used to the smash mouth football that was common in Northeast Ohio and so in the beginning we thought that Coach Thorpe’s offense was for wimps. Mr. Evans had a different opinion. He was constantly telling me that if we executed Coach Thorpe’s vision right we could give teams fits; and later that season we did. We ended up beating some notable teams and we were on people’s radar for my senior year.
The community violence was declining, test scores were rising, students bean to believe they could truly go some place in life and become a success. The frequent conversations people began to have around town was about what college “so and so” was attending and not so much about the problems the community once faced. We were changing and we were learning how to win.
The basketball team was “off the chain” that year. They were good. Brian Swift came back over from Chanel High School after winning a few championships and already being a star. J.K. Brooks was “a monster” from the three point line. Rian Powell transferred in from Benedictine High School and was a problem for most teams, and Richard Yancy and Lee Johnson were all seasoned veterans ready to put Warrensville on their shoulders and carry the community back to the promise land. We didn’t win the State Championship that year but we made it to the show. The cool thing is that just a few years prior we were just hoping to beat the cross town rival but now we were thinking big. We now believed that we could be the best in the state—every single time.
In 2002, all cylinders were running. Heading into the football season I had already accepted a full scholarship to play football at Indiana University. My mother was proud, the community was excited for me, and I was in awe of what God could do. News cameras were frequently at our school because we had a lot of momentum. I was going to Indiana, David Patterson had schools like Ohio State, Miami, and Florida coming to watch him (he later accepted a football scholarship to Ohio State), and many other student-athletes had schools lined up waiting to give them their pitch. We had never experienced this before; and now the Cleveland Plain Dealer was also talking about how Warrensville High School football team could be the one to ruin the seasons of many. And we did just that. We finished the season 8–2 that year. The first time Warrensville High School had a winning season in almost a decade. We were proud and we wanted the new tradition to continue.
Our community was winning. It wasn’t given to us, we earned it, every bit of it. What strikes me most about Warrensville is that the people are one of resolve, people who care, and people of pride. Many of the teachers that work in the schools live there and have gone to school there. Many of the folks I went to school with now teach there, coach there, and give their time. Warrensville is a place where greatness is truly born. Many great names have come out of Warrensville and have went on to achieve incredible feats. But now, for the students who are there today, it’s your turn and maybe we (those who’ve come before you) can make the journey just a little easier. Now, it’s your turn to renew the tradition, to build the hopes and dreams of the community, to let everyone know that we can win….and we can win BIG. This is the Spirit of a Tiger.