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Associated Press
Hall of Famers Ron Heflin, left, and Benny Dorsey played and coached at Gary Roosevelt High School, which has a long and storied history in Indiana high school athletics.

As schools decline, Gary athletics feels loss of pride, glory

– A cold April wind whipped out of the north. Surely the waters of Lake Michigan were chopping harshly 25 blocks away.

Ron Heflin and Benny Dorsey felt the chill in their bones. An all-consuming sadness enveloped the Hall of Fame coaches as they walked around the now-Theodore Roosevelt College & Career Academy.

“The pride is gone,” said Dorsey, a 1954 Gary Roosevelt grad and longtime Panthers coach in basketball and baseball. Dorsey coached three major leaguers in Joe Gates, Wallace Johnson and Lloyd McClendon.

“You can’t give up hope,” said Heflin, a ’58 Roosevelt grad and coach of the 1991 state championship team at the school. “But this is hard. It’s sad.”

Roosevelt wasn’t just the pride of Gary in a bygone era. But also Indiana and America.

George Taliaferro, the first black man drafted in the NFL, went to Roosevelt. Lee Calhoun, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, did, too. As did Chuck Adkins, who won Olympic boxing gold. Dick Barnett played 14 seasons in the NBA and won titles with the Knicks.

Glenn Robinson was Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in 1991.

“Times change,” Heflin told the Times in Munster. “This place isn’t what it once was.”

In 2011-12, the state handed control of Roosevelt to New York-based EdisonLearning because of poor test scores. Initially, athletics were going to be cut, but they survived, barely.

In the 2012-13 school year, Roosevelt had four athletic directors. The girls basketball team did not enter the IHSAA state tournament. It did not register online like the 399 other schools did. The state association tried multiple times to contact Roosevelt, but to no avail.

On shaky ground

Now, Lew Wallace Science Academy is facing similar doubts as the Gary Community School Corp.’s budget deficit has left the school on the chopping block.

With the Wallace situation in limbo last season, West Side’s football program picked up South Bend Washington instead of playing its city rival.

“As far as I know (Lew Wallace) is still going to have football,” Gary schools spokeswoman Sarita Stevens said. But she confirmed that a final decision on whether Wallace would be a school next school year has not yet been determined.

“I hope so,” football coach Al Williams said when asked whether Wallace would have a football team next school year. “I’m the wrong person to ask. But I’m hoping so.”

If Wallace is closed, West Side would be the only high school with an athletic program still controlled by the district. That could bring a lot of talent into one school.

Rundown facilities

Jason Johnson coached West Side to a historic season in football last fall. The Cougars made it to the second sectional championship game in school history, falling to East Chicago Central 46-44.

Nine players from the program got college scholarships.

But in all this glory there was also a Gary-like flat tire. The IHSAA took two home playoff games away from the school because the facilities were deemed unplayable.

The Gary school board spent $20,000 to buy new goal posts, new 25-second clocks and to ensure two light banks that had faltered during the regular season were ready. This was all done at the end of the regular season.

“You can’t make up for 15 years of neglect in two weeks,” IHSAA Assistant Commissioner Robert Faulkens said after inspecting the grounds.

Johnson was a standout at West Side before playing in the NFL.

Johnson would like to see club sports, in all sports, taught at the elementary schools in the city. He believes athletics are a great way to keep young students off the streets and out of crime.

“What our kids did last year was amazing,” Johnson said. “We had our issues, but we made it to a sectional championship game, and it seemed like half the city was there.

“We have to put the things in place to give our children an opportunity.”

Gary schools have never had full-time ADs. Right now, West Side’s Vanessa Nichols is also the AD at Lew Wallace.

“That’s impossible,” Johnson said.

Im a Gary man

Marvin Rea, Bowman Academy athletic director and boys basketball coach, has been the beneficiary of Gary’s failing schools. Bowman has played in four of the last five state championship games, winning Class A and 2A state titles.

But he was a standout guard at Roosevelt and led the Panthers to the 1987 state finals, winning the Trester Award for Mental Attitude.

“It’s bittersweet,” Rea said. “I work for Bowman, but I’m a Gary guy. I want the best for all the guys in the city.”

Rea played for Heflin at Roosevelt. The two are close and contemplate what the future holds for the once-powerful schools.

“They’ve got to hire the right people,” Heflin said.

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