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Rather than cut sports, tiny Okla. town adds football program

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Across the nation, school districts are cutting back on the athletic department offerings, attempting to slim budgets by limiting the amount of sports they have to subsidize. Yet, in the midst of that fiscally conservative climate, one school in Oklahoma took a diametrically opposed direction with shocking results: It added the most expensive sport it could -- football -- and may have saved the entire school in the process.

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Gracemont football team

Gracemont football team

As reported by Sports Illustrated columnist Melissa Segura, Gracemont (Okla.) High was struggling to attract enough students to maintain a viable base -- the school had a $200,000 budget shortfall and dwindling attendance -- when one of this school's teachers made the radical suggestion that the school start a football program. While football is a staple of most schools across the heartland, Gracemont had never hosted a team in its 100-year history.

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To be fair, even the idea of football at a tiny school like Gracemont could seem almost insane. The school -- which lies approximately 75 minutes from Oklahoma City via Chickasha -- had traditionally had approximately 10 students per graduating class. Do the math, and one comes out with a varsity squad of between 20 and 30 members … if every single male student plays.

For that reason alone, the desperate suggestion to start a football program by teacher Jeremy Scott could have seemed futile or self destructive. Yet, instead of ridicule Scott, one of the district's most important figures -- Gracemont Elementary School Principal Roberta Fulbright -- decided Scott's idea was brilliant. The 69-year-old school board power broker immediately started fundraising, seeing a Gracemont Football program as a what it could be: a saving grace with the power to re-invigorate a flagging school district and, in turn, increase the population of a small American town.

Incredibly, within a matter of months the school built a field, had local citizens construct a press box and -- perhaps most importantly -- Scott had taught the school's entire male population to play football, a task which was trying but surprisingly rewarding for the teacher turned coach because his players had no bad habits to break.

"They didn't understand zero [about football]," Scott told Sports Illustrated. "They didn't know how to throw the ball, how to block. They weren't dumb, they just didn't know.

"There were no bad habits to break. They caught on quicker than any other team I've coached before."

The team is still growing and learning, but it hasn't caught up to other Oklahoma programs yet; the Lions are a combined 0-13 in two seasons of varsity football. Yet, because of improvement shown on the field, incremental revenue increases of thousands of dollars and a generally improved morale, there's little question that football has found a foothold in a small Oklahoma town, which may just have football to thank when it still exists in 2012.

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