Northwest High School Assistant Football Coach Abe Tawfeek, left, checks the equipment issued to sophomore De’Monie Johnson, 16, as Desjuan Wynter, 15, behind Johnson, waits his turn before practice on Thursday, August 21, 2014. The school, at 5525 W. 34th St., Indianapolis, is scrambling to find equipment for its couple dozen players.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon, three days before the high school football season starts. At Ben Davis, Carmel and Warren Central, coaches prepare their teams for opening games with hopes of building toward a state championship.
At Northwest, there is no dream of a state championship. Not now. Not yet. On this day, 28 players in mismatched green practice jerseys drill for Friday’s home opener against Evansville Mater Dei, a traditional small school state power.
The new coach, John Butler, has left his assistants to run practice. Planning for Mater Dei isn’t his top priority on this day. Instead, he’s hunting down equipment to outfit his team.
“Our (academically) ineligible kids don’t have equipment and about eight of our eligible kids just have bits and pieces and can’t practice the right way,” said Butler, a history teacher. “I’ve reached out to township schools and still have some more reaching out to do. I’ve reached out to the (Indianapolis) Colts, but for them to consider donations, it’ll take a few weeks. It’s just all new and we have a lot of things to do at one time.”
This is how the other half lives.
Butler is Northwest’s third coach in three years. The Space Pioneers have won three games total in that time and have not enjoyed a winning season since 2005. The team shares a sectional with established Class 4A programs such as Bishop Chatard, Roncalli and Plainfield.
It might seem like an unwinnable situation for the Indianapolis Public School program, but it’s relative. If winning is defined by winning seasons and sectional championships, then it’ll be a tough go.
“You can’t look at it in wins and losses,” said Jonas Williams, an assistant coach. “It’s kind of a new dawn here at Northwest. It’s a new situation and a chance for us to help these kids out in their current situation.”
Williams, 32, played at Northwest in the late 1990s. The team wasn’t a juggernaut, but it beat Roncalli, Cardinal Ritter, Southport and Franklin Central in 1996. Williams, a Marion County juvenile officer, sees a school different than it was 15 years ago.
“The difference I see now is participation,” he said. “The kids have changed. You’ve got to get them out and involved in something. You see Indianapolis expanding with charter schools and now kids can really go anywhere as freshmen. So you’re fighting a lot of different things at a school like Northwest.”
It’s a numbers battle. Northwest’s graduation rate was 62.5 percent in 2013. A total of 140 seniors graduated. Schools in the same football sectional such as Plainfield (309 graduates), Mooresville (295), Lebanon (204) and Danville (200) have a larger pool of students who make it all the way through high school.
This season, Northwest has six seniors — a 4A program with six seniors.
Butler, 38, was hired on July 3 and had nine players working out the two weeks prior to the first practice on Aug. 4. The Space Pioneers will go into Friday’s opener with a pair of freshmen as the top two quarterback spots on the depth chart.
“It literally feels like a brand-new program,” said Butler, whose only other head coaching job was at Cloverdale in 2011 and ’12. “I helped Eastern Greene start its program in 2003 and that’s where we’re at. There’s no difference between the two. It’s like we’re starting a new varsity program.”
Butler, an Army Reserve who spent 14 months in Iraq in 2006-07, admits he didn’t fully realize the scope of the job when he was hired. The Lebanon native has surrounded himself with inspired and capable assistants such as Williams, who has head coaching experience at Tech and Arlington, Abe Tawfeek, another Northwest graduate with college playing experience, and former Northwest and Purdue linebacker Mike Durrett.
“I hit my first goal with the staff we were able to bring in,” Butler said. “Our message is that we’re going to be a class act football program, on and off the field. We’re going to hold them accountable. The character has to be there and then we can start with basic football instruction.”
It’s Square One for Northwest. This the same program that lost its first two games last year by scores of 66-6 and 67-0. Butler says he’s in it for the long haul. He says he’d love nothing more than to build a successful program and retire from Northwest someday.
But first things first.
“Right now we need equipment,” he said. “We’re doing what we can. But I see this as a gold mine. If you can win the hearts and minds, you can get people to become loyal and get involved. It’s an opportunity to show people IPS can do great things.”
Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.