EAST CHICAGO | You could hear echos from the footsteps. Or the drip from a leaking faucet down the way. Or a fly buzzing around the all-but-empty weight room at E.C. Central High School.
Newly hired football coach Stacy Adams had a call-out meeting inside the walls filled with iron, but lacking in sweat. Only three potential Cardinals were there: Martayveus Carter, Anthony Hunt and Tre'Quan Burnett.
All three were incoming freshmen.
"I was very disappointed," Hunt remembered. "No one was there. Just us. The only thing Coach Adams could tell us was we had to get in the weight room, we had to get stronger to be better."
While E.C. Central has never won a football sectional championship, the basketball crazy town was once a football power. E.C. Roosevelt won mythical state championships in 1945, '46, '47, '49, '55 ad '57. E.C. Washington won a mythical state crown in 1942.
The ball that bounces straight up has always had a bigger magnetic pull for the kids and families in E.C., historically. But Dave Egofske jump started the football team in the early 1990s and once had his program ranked No. 1 in the Class 5A state poll.
That wasn't where Adams found it when he arrived in 2010. Chaos and disciplinary problems along with low numbers and urban blight awaited him the first time he drove down Columbus Drive.
"There are a lot of issues city schools have to deal with that the suburban schools don't," Adams said. "We play on the same field but we have to get there a different way."
Adams is a 1984 Lew Wallace grad, where he played quarterback for legendary coach Dave Templin. During his senior year the Hornets pounded LaPorte in the Slicers' homecoming. As a sophomore Lew Wallace beat Merrillville.
He's brought Templin's hard-nosed, old-school philosophy to E.C., whether there are 50 guys in the room or three.
"Coach Templin's mindset was win, win, win," Adams said. "He told us every day there was no shortcut to success. He told us we were going to do it the right way and we were going to try to do it the right way every time. I brought some of that here. When the boys are running we have a saying. 'Do it right, do it light,' but if some of them are slacking we say, 'Do it wrong, do it long."
The number on the roster this year is near 60. You now need to take a number in the weight room. Adams has 29 seniors and many of them have an opportunity to play college football. E.C. won a school record nine games last year and beat Griffith, 35-0, for the first win over the Panthers in school history.
The goal of beating a suburban power in the playoffs is getting closer, but the social gap is still extreme.
Adams' son played at Valparaiso, and Adams attended many of the Vikings' games. Most Duneland Athletic Conference teams have 10-15 assistant coaches. E.C. has five. His son had to sell multiple discount cards as a fundraiser. He tried it in E.C. It didn't work.
"We were lucky to get one or two back," he said.
The money issue hangs over most city schools, where they don't have Quarterback Clubs or Football Moms clubs helping to bring dollars in.
"If we need an extra ball or two, or a few more pads, we have to find the money," Adams said. "We played at Hobart and their booster club was awesome. They had food for our kids after the scrimmage and the kids from both teams sat together and ate together. That is something I would like to do here.
"It's getting better. The parent support is improving here."
Adams said the numbers in the suburbs are much higher. So he's focused his Cardinals on one thing: they have the same number on the field as we do. With Carter going to Northern Illinois and several others being recruited heavily, 11-on-11 works just fine for E.C.
He also gave credit to the school administration for bringing in an artificial surface field and upgrading the facilities. They also funded school buses so the Cards can travel in the summer to participate in 7-on-7s and scrimmages. There were 16 players on the sectional roster the year before Adams arrived.
The number is more than 60 now. And rising.
Senior lineman Keon Brown said that Adams did not have to be a salesman. Brown said the guys who wanted to play, played. Getting better every day, which started in an empty room four years ago, turned into a winning season last fall.
Now, these players want to take it to another level.
"Coach instilled it in our heads that we could be better and win," Brown said. "So we all got dedicated and did what we had to do. We weren't surprised when we started winning. When we beat Griffith he gathered us around and said, 'I told you so.'"
Just like at Wallace, the teachers at E.C. are hopping aboard the bandwagon. For students who are struggling in certain subjects, they are there. The whole school, the whole community, is behind this dunk-less program.
"We lost to Roy (in 2011) in the sectionals and I shook his hand after the game," Adams said of Morton coach Roy Richards. "I told him my kids hadn't earned the right to beat him yet. Now, after everything these kids have done, I believe we have earned that right. The first thing I had to do when I got here was get these kids to compete with teams.
"Now, I tell them if we compete with teams we can beat them. And that is what we want to do this year."