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Daniel Ruth

Plant High takes prep sports to a new, rather silly level

Good grief, what's next? Providing every Plant High School football player his own personal bidet? We probably don't want to know. • While most other prep sports programs around the Tampa Bay area struggle to provide the bare necessities to even keep their teams clothed, the Fighting Blue Chips of Plant High enjoy a level of amenities some college and even professional teams can only dream of.

Thanks to a deep-pocketed foundation, the Fighting Portfolios of Plant cavort about the gridiron recently refitted with a $650,000 synthetic field, snazzy new uniforms and enhanced facilities.

Insert envy alert right about here. When I played football a hundred years ago for Akron's St. Vincent High School (yes, basketball superstar Le­Bron James' alma mater, too), we had a trainer, who when you asked for a Band-Aid, would reply: "What happened to the one I gave you last week?"

Things have changed. Our locker room had all the charm of a Turkish prison. Plant's inner sanctum apparently makes the Oval Office look like a homeless shelter. We practiced on a dirt- and rock-filled field. Plant's Fighting Estates & Trusts prepare for their games on the pigskin equivalent of Monte Carlo.

We traveled to our games on a rattling school bus. This week, the Fighting Ascots of Plant traveled free of charge, thanks to a sports marketing firm, to Texas to take on the Abilene High School Fighting Cacti.

The big game pitting the Fighting ATMs against the Fighting Where Moses Lost His Sandals aired on ESPN.

To be sure, all the lucre and luxury being bestowed upon the Fighting Sultans of Brunei is largely due to two factors. First, Plant High School is in one of Tampa's most well-heeled enclaves. When the student parking lot is filled with nicer vehicles than what the administration and faculty are driving, you get the feeling that while these kids may not have been born with silver spoons in their mouths, the car keys to a Lexus are another matter entirely.

It is certainly true that other high school sports programs in the area are more financially challenged than the Port-au-Prince public works department. At the start of the school year, while the Fighting AIGs were enjoying their oysters Rockefeller, Leto High School's booster club, for example, was $400 in the red.

There's no question having a successful program helps a bit, too. The Fighting Cartiers of Plant were last year's 5A state football champions. Alas, Leto hasn't had a winning record since, well, since before this decade began.

In a sense, Tampa's prep football environment mirrors the National Football League — the haves and the have-nots, small-market teams struggling for success against the bigger, flashier franchises.

Still, to be fair, who can really blame all the Daddy Warbuckses of the Plant High School Athletic Foundation for emptying their wallets for the Fighting Foie Gras? These are, for the most part, parents and/or alumni of Plant High School who want to elevate the athletic programs to elite status.

No doubt if the Fighting Joads of Leto had access to the same resources, the school also would want to take advantage of them.

But all this largesse speaks to a larger issue of priorities.

Just as college sports programs — particularly football and basketball — have transcended sports to become virtual Fortune 500 companies, the economic motives have at last trickled down to high school sports as well.

This is, admittedly, probably a factor of age flirting with nostalgia, but there does seem to be something oddly discomfiting to see a program like the Fighting Coupon Clippers so amply endowed by their purveyors.

Isn't Friday night high school football supposed to be a sort of parochial slice of Americana — the strutting bands, the congenitally bubbly cheerleaders, the heart-attack-inducing food all savored as the student body and families come together under the lights to root for their boys?

Somehow, the ESPN cameras, sending teenagers out of state to play a high school football game, and a playing field of more than a half-million dollars seem to run counter to what prep sports is, or ought to be, all about — a sappy, still-innocent celebration of athletic skill, yes, but also simply being young before the complications of adulthood intrude.

If you're thinking this is a rather antediluvian — even naive — attitude about 21st century prep sports, you're probably right. Guilty.

Unfortunately, prep sports has become as much about money as it is about whatever happens on the football field. Isn't that just a little bit sad?

It is probably fortunate that the Fighting Recessions of Leto will not have to face the Fighting Saks Fifth Avenues of Plant this season. The schedule for the lads of Leto has not been kind.

Still, it would be nice to think that years from now when these young men from Leto get together for their reunions, they will look back on this time of their lives and conclude that by the end of this football season — for all its disappointments — they still had more unadorned fun.

Plant High takes prep sports to a new, rather silly level 09/16/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 16, 2010 7:21pm]
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