Thrill in the 'Ville

The making of an improbable powerhouse.

Glenville Tarblooders
Everything is quiet now. An assistant coach has closed the heavy locker-room door. The stadium's cluttered, happy soundtrack has been sucked away, replaced by the soft settling of kneepads on the cement floor.

These boys, they don't like the quiet. They like boom-box bass lines banging off rusty lockers. The thwack of helmet meeting helmet, whether in celebration or battle. The sound of their crazy little center, Ryan Driggins, commanding from his 5-foot-5, 220-pound frame: Get physical, nigga! Get fuckin' physical!

But it's game day, and game day requires this brief moment of silence. In a few breaths, these boys -- the 2005 Glenville Tarblooders -- will play their second game of the season, against Columbus Brookhaven on shiny Byers Field in Parma.

It's a big game. Brookhaven won the Division II title last season. They've been talking shit since last spring.

For the Tarblooders, though, every game is big. On a team with 36 seniors, most of whom expect to play college football next year, each game is a chance to build recruiting tape. A big tackle or key block could determine which coaches come calling. A shredded knee or torn Achilles could make the difference between playing in the Rose Bowl or taking History 101 at Tri-C.

Then there's this: The Tarblooders are supposed to win state. They've been creeping closer and closer to a title since 1999, when they first made the playoffs. They ended last season three points from the championship game. This year, their roster reads like a high school all-star team, with players being courted by Ohio State, Southern Cal, and the rest of the NCAA elite. The city, the neighborhood, the school, the press -- all say this is Glenville's year.

It makes no sense. College scholarships? Winning state? These are things reserved for suburban and private schools -- schools with field houses, press boxes, and the word Saint in their name.

Glenville, by contrast, is buried among tattered duplexes and abandoned storefronts, near a beaten stretch of St. Clair Avenue. Most of the kids were raised by single parents, some by no parents at all. Others are homeless or were born addicted to drugs or alcohol. Few have college in their family trees. It's supposed to be the kind of school where getting 11 kids to line up on game day is a banquet-worthy accomplishment.

Winning state? That's a screenplay.

But this is their charge, so all is quiet. The boys know that the reason they're thinking about state -- and college -- is the man standing before them, the one about to speak. They know this is the helmets-off, eyes-up, swallow-the-fear moment when Coach, in his slow baritone voice, explains why they are here and what it all means. So the door closes. They take a knee. They fasten their wild eyes on his, and --

Game on.

"Now, who is this?"

Ted Ginn Sr. is trying to decide whether to answer his cell. It's late on a September morning, and Ginn is slumped on his living-room floor. His bare feet dig into the soft burgundy carpet. He wears what he always wears: Nike athletic shorts, Nike T-shirt, Nike hat. If he were wearing socks, they would be Nikes. If he were wearing shoes, they would be sandals, and they would be Nikes.

Ginn should be roaming the halls of Glenville High, where he works as a security guard. But doctors recently removed a growth from his colon. He's still moving gingerly, so he spends his mornings answering calls in his small two-story house, a few miles from school.

For the Tarblooders' 49-year-old coach, the phone rings at least 15 times in an average hour. He peers through square black-rimmed glasses to see whether he recognizes the number. If he doesn't, he lets out a slow, low "Now, who is this?"

There is no methodology to whose calls get answered and whose are ignored. But he will answer the phone almost anywhere and anytime -- during pregame warm-ups, practice, an interview, a coach's meeting, a private conversation.

He has to. In eight years as Glenville's head coach, he's become one of the most talked-about -- and talked-to -- men in Cleveland. If he didn't take calls now, he'd spend each night cleaning out his voice mail.

So on his living-room floor -- though he's in the middle of defending himself against accusations that he cheats to win -- he picks up the phone anyway, with a skeptical hello.

"Coach Ginn?"

Players call constantly -- for rides, for some food money, to get out of trouble with school or law. Former players call too. Donte Whitner, Ohio State's star safety, might call for advice about a girl. Freddie Lenix, a Buckeye freshman, called recently for advice about getting a job. Ginn's 20-year-old son, Ted Ginn Jr., an Ohio State receiver and one of college football's most electric players, calls several times a week.

His assistants call for almost anything, from marital advice to blocking-scheme suggestions. College coaches call to check up on his players. Politicians and power brokers call to talk about the charter school Ginn is trying to start, which he calls Ginn Academy. Parents he's never met call for advice about their kids. Oh, and his wife, Jeanette -- she calls to find out whether he's ever coming home from school.

But this morning, the man on the phone introduces himself as Sam Byrd. He's with Dominion East Ohio, the gas company, and he wants to talk football.

Byrd tells Ginn that he met a boy the coach should know about. The kid's family recently moved to a home on 104th, near Buckeye. Byrd hooked up the family's gas lines. A 14-year-old boy stayed home to let him in. The kid wasn't signed up for school.

Byrd had read about how most students Ginn coaches wind up in college, whether playing football or not. He asked the kid if he ever played football; the boy grew up playing in city leagues.

"He's six foot, 270, Coach," Byrd booms into the phone. "He's oldest of 10 kids, Coach." He wants to set up a meeting between Ginn and the boy's mom.

"Them the kind of kids we like," Ginn tells him. Then, as if he and Byrd were old friends, Ginn says, "Go get me that kid."

The Tarblooders practice on a low, long patch of grass and dirt, a piece of city park sunk below the streets of Glenville. Most days, the team shares the field with city league teams and neighborhood kids, who play pickup near the Tarblooders' sideline, mimicking the throaty blue 19s and set-huts of Glenville quarterbacks.

While his staff runs practice, Ginn floats here and there, like a Vegas pit boss keeping watch on his tables. He shuffles from the defense to offense, from the JV to the varsity, from sidelines to the huddle, never spending so much time with one group that another feels ignored.

He spends much of the practice by himself, standing silently in the distance until he feels the need to say something. "Take care of business" or "You got to put in time at The 'Ville." Something like that.

When Ginn does speak, the topic doesn't stay on football long. X's and O's appear low on his to-do list. In one breath, he might be hammering on his defensive line to stay low! In the next, he'll be chatting with a boy about homework, his parents, Hurricane Katrina . . .

Sometimes he ignores his players altogether, attending to the crowd surrounding the field. Some of the onlookers are parents. Others are fans or friends from the neighborhood. They pull cars onto the grass and watch the boys run sprints until they can't stand. They stroll casually onto the field, mixing with players and coaches. They ride the boys about keeping their grades up, or they ask Ginn what he thinks about the weekend's game.

Even with his team imploding just feet away, Coach will stay locked in conversation. Near the end of a recent practice, a conditioning drill devolved into a chorus of What the fuck?, players firebombing each other with accusations of dogging it. Ginn ignored it all until the kids were too winded to return each other's insults.

"It's a crazy game," one neighborhood guy finally said. "The crazier they are, the better."

Ginn just smiled.

At another practice, while his team ran drills in the sun, Ginn stood in the shade, talking about parenting with a mom and dad. They were sitting on a cement wall, Ginn standing before them, his foot resting on a discarded bottle of King Cobra.

"Parents say, 'I already told him five times.' Well, tell him six. Tell him 10," Ginn said, with no apparent prompting. "I'm 49 years old. I wish I could have my momma tell me something to this day."

Ginn was born an only child in rural Louisiana. He was raised there by his grandparents until age 11, when he moved to Cleveland with his mom.

He was a Tarblooder himself, a 145-pound center and linebacker, and he found a father figure in a young assistant coach named James Hubbard. An average student, Ginn graduated in 1974, taking a job as a machinist. He never gave college a thought; in those days, decent wages didn't need degrees.

But in 1976, Ginn's mom, who was 38, died of a brain aneurysm. Ginn already had a steady factory job and would soon move to Cleveland Pneumatic, building landing gear for planes. Still, the coaches at Glenville feared that Ginn would find trouble without his mom. He had stayed in touch with Hubbard, who had become head coach. Hubbard told Ginn to volunteer as an assistant.

"I was doing what they tell me," Ginn says now. "It wasn't a decision. I had to do it."

For the next 10 years, Ginn built landing gear at night and coached football during the day -- for free. He took over the JV team in 1987 and for the first time saw a paycheck for his work, about a thousand bucks for the season. Three years later, he was laid off from Cleveland Pneumatic, so he took a job as a high school security guard -- a severe cut in pay, from $50,000 to less than $30,000.

As Cleveland's economy tanked, poverty enveloped the already struggling Glenville neighborhood. Resources for school and team dried up. Glenville was always competitive, but the city teams could no longer keep up with the suburban and Catholic powers.

Nationwide, the era of urban dynasties was gone, washed away by desegregation. The middle and upper classes packed up for the suburbs, taking their money, their resources, and their football championships with them. They left neighborhoods like Glenville unemployed, poor, overrun by drugs and crime. They left schools like Glenville struggling to get kids to show up, go to class, graduate.

Ginn was still coaching the JV in 1997 when Hubbard retired. He expected one of Hubbard's top assistants to take the job. But as two-a-days arrived in August, nobody had signed up.

"Y'all the best we fuckin' got," an assistant coach is saying, his voice angry and exhausted. "Y'all on varsity for a reason."

It's halftime of the Brookhaven game, and the heavy door is closed again. The pregame calm has given way to an explosion of tirades and pump-ups from players and coaches, anyone who wants the floor.

Before the game, Ginn talked about big-time football and opportunity, about playing for God and being men and taking care of business. He said it with that slow, southern calm that says, Everything is cool. Just stick with me. And everything indeed seemed cool. The boys rattled off a quick prayer -- 50 low, nervous voices barreling through the Lord's Prayer as if a priest were hiding in a locker with a stopwatch. And they marched onto the field, arms linked, with the swagger of a team about to embarrass someone.

But now it's 14-12. A two-point lead. The Tarblooders played a sloppy first half. Brookhaven sucked the swagger out of them. Defensive end Robert Rose played tentatively, letting his rare combination of size (6-5, 260) and speed (4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash) go unnoticed. Receiver Ray Small, considered one of the best athletes in the country, barely touched the ball. Bruce Frieson, the star running back, spent the first half running in place.

These are just some of the freakishly talented boys who make watching the Tarblooders a special event -- and who have coaches accusing Ginn of cheating.

After taking over in 1997, Ginn quickly built a reputation among players, coaches, teachers, and parents as a man with no off switch. He let students stay at his house. He fed them. He kept them out of jail. He talked to them about college when no one else did.

The kids fell for him. So did the parents.

"I've never met a man like that -- who takes responsibility for all kids who step into his life," says Debbie Robinson, mother of Ohio State's Donte Whitner.

Ginn built his roster by hounding students about their grades, forcing them into tutoring -- anything to keep them eligible and on track to go to college. And he did it year-round. "If these kids don't have the grades, [the coaches] are on their butts," says Rose Spano, a Glenville biology teacher in her 32nd year in Cleveland schools.

He required early-morning and off-season workouts to develop speed and conditioning. And with offensive coordinator Matt Chinchar, Ginn built a spread offense based on pure speed. His players were eligible, fast, and focused, and Glenville started blowing other city teams out.

In 1999, Glenville became the first city public school to make the playoffs since the state tournament was launched in 1972.

But it was in 2000 that Glenville shifted from respectable program to Ohio power. Pierre Woods, the Tarblooders' star linebacker, was the catalyst. Ginn knew Woods could play Division I college ball. But he couldn't get a coach to come to Glenville to see him.

So Ginn piled Woods in a van -- along with Ted Jr., an eighth-grader at the time, and another player -- and toured the country, showing off Woods' skills at football camps. The linebacker eventually signed with Michigan, where he's now a star.

Woods' success got the attention of players citywide. They wanted that kind of exposure too, and their parents wanted Ginn's influence and accessibility. So top athletes -- like Rose, Small, Frieson, and others -- started transferring to Glenville in packs. With some of the country's most highly coveted recruits on its roster, Glenville began to do the unthinkable, knocking off Catholic powers like St. Ignatius and St. Edward.

"When they break the huddle, I don't think you'd find any more speed at, say, a Florida State," says Ignatius Coach Chuck Kyle, whose team lost to Glenville in last year's playoffs.

Cleveland's open-enrollment policy allows kids to attend whatever school they want. But coaches complain that so many boys are transferring to Glenville that it has become a football magnet school, threatening to wipe out other city programs altogether. "It may help a select few, and it may enhance one program," says John Marshall coach Tony Santangelo. "I think it's hurting more kids than it's helping."

Two years ago, John Marshall had Bruce Frieson. He was an unlikely star, not much taller than 5 foot 5. But his legs were like treasure chests, thick and heavy, and he could churn them through piles of angry, helmeted teenagers. Once in space, he could fly. As a sophomore, he sliced through Senate League defenses, rushing for more than 1,300 yards.

The success made Frieson -- and his mom, Aretha -- start to think about college. But Frieson was struggling in school; he ended his sophomore year academically ineligible. Bruce's mom looked for places to transfer him, starting with private schools. But as a single mother of four, she already worked two nursing jobs to pay the bills.

So they looked at Glenville, which was becoming a household name. Ginn's van trip with Woods had turned into an annual summer tour of camps at Ohio State, Michigan State, Akron, and other colleges. With the exposure Tarblooders were getting, Ginn had sent more than 30 players to D-I schools. Suddenly, recruiters across the Midwest were flocking to Glenville.

"If that's not your first stop," says Akron coach J.D. Brookhart, "you probably don't know much about recruiting."

With so many other top athletes transferring to Glenville -- including Catholic-school kids like Rose and Small, who ditched Central Catholic and St. Ed's to play for Ginn -- winning was inevitable. The only question was whether the team would eventually win it all.

But Aretha Frieson was leery. After all, Glenville was just another school in the same district that failed her son. She knew all the exposure wasn't going to help Bruce graduate and become the family's first member to go to a four-year college. So she met with Ginn. "He was more concerned with Bruce as a young man and what kind of young man he was going to be," she says. "That was a key."

By his junior year, Frieson was waking up at 4 a.m. to catch the first of three buses that took him from his house near West 130th to Glenville. Getting his grades up was a struggle -- he was ineligible for most of his junior season. But by spring, they were rising. He spent this summer traveling with 35 other players -- about half of whom don't even go to Glenville -- touring football camps.

He started his senior year with a two-touchdown game against Mentor, a suburban power. Though he struggled in the first half against Brookhaven, Frieson and the Tarblooders spent the second half burning up the artificial turf, as if someone had reminded them that they are all very freakin' fast.

The Tarblooders won, 41-26. Frieson finished with 129 yards and two touchdowns. He also showed off the 4.4 speed and sturdy legs that have colleges like Iowa, Toledo, and Akron asking about him.

"He'll be the first one," Aretha Frieson says of her son's going to college. "He'll be breaking the cycle."

Yet some coaches openly accuse Ginn of cheating -- of calling boys already enrolled at one school and pushing them to transfer.

"A lot of that has gone on," says Collinwood coach Cecil Shorts. "A lot of the kids that end up over there were developed from the ground up somewhere else. You feel great for the kids, but there are questions on how this is happening and why it is happening at one school."

But if Ginn recruits, it's clear he doesn't have to. "I don't call kids," he explains. "Kids call me." So do their parents, because Ginn offers things other city schools don't: college recruiters, summer camp tours, the chance to play with other top athletes.

"Why is the kid wanting to go?" asks Ignatius' Kyle. "He wants to go because he wants to be connected to what Coach Ginn is doing."

Says Marzell Pink, head coach at East High: "Either we need to Xerox-copy that boy or just shut up."

When not at the park, Ohio's top city program exists inside a small corner of Glenville High, next to a dusty, litter-covered parking lot not far from where janitors take out the garbage. The football team's "facilities" consist of a musky locker room, a weight room with a couple of working machines, and a small classroom.

The classroom, a windowless basement, is where Ginn's staff spends many of its Sundays. Part of the ceiling is saturated with water and caving in. Other parts are gone altogether, exposing old ducts and wiring.

On the day after the Brookhaven game, the staff gathers to watch tape and grade each player. They bring chips and two-liters and pile themselves into little desks. Half the coaches watch the offense; they get the good TV, the 27-incher with the decent color. The other half, including Ginn, watches the defense on a 13-inch, wood-paneled Magnavox, where Tarblooder red looks purple. The coaches huddle as close to the TV as they can get, but they still can't tell one player from another.

"One more time," someone will say, and Ginn will rewind the tape so they can watch a play for the third, fourth, fifth time.

It fluctuates from year to year, but this year, Glenville has about a dozen coaches. Most are volunteers, former players or guys from the neighborhood.

Chinchar, the offensive coordinator, has coached with Ginn for nine seasons. He sticks out in Glenville's little corner -- he's the only white Tarblooder among the players and coaches, a khakis-and-button-down guy in a world entirely street. The Glenville guidance counselor has been a head coach at suburban schools and even coached at John Carroll for a spell. But he wants to retire at Glenville.

"Everything you want in coaching is right here," he says. "Helping the kids, X's and O's, top athletes -- what else would you want?"

Tony Fox has coached Ginn's offensive line for seven years. He works for the gas company. Every season, he gives up most of his vacation hours so he can sneak out of work for practice. He's a volunteer, but he spends at least 25 hours a week barking at linemen, visiting homes to talk about grades, breaking down film in this dusty classroom, or stopping by Ginn's house to build game plans.

It is Fox who, at the end of coaches' meetings, has the coaches get a break -- throw their hands in a pile and holler something in unison. Today they break with "Remember the mission."

As the coaches put their hands together, one is slow to the huddle. Tony Overton, at 32, is the youngest of Ginn's core coaches. He typically bounds about practice like a third-grader on Christmas morning. But he happens to think getting a break is cheesy, so he holds his hand away from the huddle with a playful smile that says, You guys are old.

Overton grew up in Glenville. He starred in football and basketball from 1988 to 1991, when Ginn was an assistant. "He was the exciting coach," Overton remembers. "He was the guy who could yell at you at practice, but you still wanted to catch a ride home with him."

Five foot ten, quick and wiry, Overton graduated from Glenville and walked on at the University of Akron, hoping to play football. But shortly thereafter, he fathered a daughter, and his college career -- both athletic and academic -- was done.

In the late '90s, he started hanging around Glenville again, helping receivers, reconnecting with Ginn. Soon Overton, a real-estate appraiser, was passing up side jobs to spend his afternoons at the school. He rushed out of work so he could get to practice on time. Last year, he took over the junior varsity.

He also took on an extra project -- helping raise Daven Jones, the Tarblooders' star receiver. Jones is 6 foot 1, with a track star's speed, dunker's hops, and hands the size of a catcher's mitt. But his grandmother was raising him on her own. If he was going to finish school and go to college, he needed help.

Overton kept on him about homework, gave him rides, bought him food. And when it came time to start talking about college, Jones' grandma put the decision in the young coach's hands.

Several big-time schools were after the star receiver, but Overton liked Wisconsin. Madison, a classic college town, was small enough that Jones wouldn't get distracted. And the coach reminded him of Ginn -- a kid-first, football-second kind of guy. At Overton's urging, Jones committed to Wisconsin earlier this year.

Ginn let his young assistant handle Jones' recruitment, in part because the two had formed a bond. But Ginn also wants Overton to get the practice. At 49, Ginn is looking ahead to the end of his coaching career. He wants to eventually run Ginn Academy, a charter school that has the backing of Cleveland administrators.

And he's already operating his own nonprofit, to help raise money for the charter school, in anticipation of the NFL dollars his son could make. He doesn't imagine ever letting go of Glenville football. And whoever the head coach turns out to be, he can expect Ted Ginn Sr. in his ear. But someone else will eventually have to start taking all the phone calls -- someone who will remember the mission.

No matter how embarrassed Overton is to get a break -- no matter how slow he is to get his hand in the huddle -- Ginn knows he'll eventually get there.

It's Tuesday, a big practice day, the day Glenville's defense starts planning for the next week's game. There's plenty of work to do. The team is coming off the sloppy win over Brookhaven, and it's heading into the first league game, against rival Collinwood.

But it's also the day the city will dedicate the team's new field, an artificial surface not far from the school. The Tarblooders will share their new digs with several city-league teams, along with East High.

The boys spend the afternoon studying, then throw on their jerseys and walk the half-mile to the new field. They sit in the sun, helmets on, while politician after politician extols Glenville's success.

By the time the ceremony ends, it's past 6 p.m. Practice is shot. The boys sit on cement bleachers, wolfing down burgers and teasing cheerleaders. Politicians and parents linger near Ginn, wanting to say hello.

Sometime after 7, Ginn gathers the kids. It's his typical end-of-practice oration, jumping from the devastation in New Orleans to God to schoolwork, never touching on the game four days away.

Then he dismisses them. Some walk back toward the locker room. But most stick around.

Ginn sits on a bench, surrounded by parents and coaches, former players and old friends. They watch the neighborhood kids, who chuck footballs on the shiny new field. They watch the Tarblooders' kicker quietly thump balls. And they watch Overton run his JVs through some last-minute drills. It's 7:45. There's still a half-hour of daylight left.

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