Arnulfo Flores, St. Paul Humboldt High School’s first-year football coach, expected 20 or 30 people. He had spent all week inviting residents of the city’s West Side neighborhood to attend this open house.
He stood below the stage at the front of the school’s auditorium this February evening, talking about his plans to restore community tradition, promising Humboldt can reach athletic success it hasn’t seen in decades, if ever.
The school’s trophy case is filled mostly with relics from years such as 1949 and 1953. The last time Humboldt won a conference championship in football was 1974.
When Flores, a 2001 Humboldt graduate, started the job in January, he built a staff of five assistant coaches. Four of them have roots in the West Side.
Flores figures if Humboldt can build winning teams across all sports, West Side residents who largely abandoned the school will begin to come back.
In the auditorium, assistant coaches looked around and shook their heads. A few administrators in the back laughed.
Flores’ problem fit all too well with what has happened at Humboldt, where only 10 upperclassmen are returning to the football program and only 27 percent of students come from the West Side.
No one showed up.
Flores wasn’t the first pick for Humboldt’s coaching opening when Steve Elizondo retired after the 2015 season.
In December, Flores got a call and learned Humboldt had chosen another candidate, an experienced teacher who was already licensed to become a head coach.
Flores has coached youth sports for years and spent the past three seasons moonlighting as an assistant at Humboldt. He also works a contract job through Xcel Energy.
The next day, the phone rang again The chosen candidate had turned down the job. This time, athletic director David Mergens offered it to Flores.
“I think everything happens for a reason,” Flores said.
From the day Elizondo retired, Mergens saw an opportunity to rebuild Humboldt’s program. The process started with interviewing players. After Flores took the job, completed a certification course and hired his staff, Flores sought opinions from the community.
The decision: Humboldt will not have a varsity football team in 2016, suspending the program for a year in hopes participation numbers will rise.
The Hawks were 0-9 last year, and Humboldt had lost its past 16 games. In September, Humboldt forfeited to Minneapolis North after injuries cut into an already thin roster.
This fall, Flores said, he expects his freshman class to have at least 21 players. If they can succeed at the ninth-grade or junior varsity level instead of being physically overmatched by upperclassmen, they might be more likely to stick with the game.
If they eventually have success at the varsity level, more players might come to Humboldt. Success is more likely since Humboldt joined the Twin City District and now plays schools with similar enrollment.
“It just seemed to be a window of opportunity to make this all work,” Mergens said.
Before he even applied for the job, Flores began brainstorming the idea of filling the program with neighborhood coaches. His first call was to Santino Franco, who, at 43, is a West Side institution.
Franco was the grand marshal of the community’s Cinco de Mayo parade last year. He has volunteered in youth sports for more than 20 years — including two on staff at Humboldt — before becoming Flores’ defensive coordinator this winter.
“The community knows we know how to coach football,” Franco said. “But the main thing is, the community knows we know how to connect with these young kids.”
A 1991 Humboldt graduate, Franco said he was a “typical knucklehead” growing up in what is regarded as one of St. Paul’s roughest areas. A coach motivated him to stop failing classes. When gang violence began permeating the West Side in ’90s, Franco said coaching is what saved him.
Now when Franco sits in Humboldt’s cafeteria, he sees students who remind him of himself.
“I was one of these kids who went down to the youth center and got in trouble and got kicked out,” Franco said. “I was one of these kids, 12 years old, experimenting with marijuana and alcohol. I was one of these kids acting a fool in these hallways.
“I know exactly where these young people are coming from. [These coaches], we’ve grown up in this neighborhood. We’ve all been subjected to these surroundings, and we were able to not let these surroundings get the best of us.”
Franco has sent three kids to Humboldt. His oldest son is set to graduate from the University of Minnesota. Oldest daughter Marissa recently became co-head coach of Humboldt’s softball program. Another daughter, Amelia, is captain of the girls’ basketball team.
But even Franco is part of the West Side community’s change. A few years back, he got an offer on a home he couldn’t refuse and moved out of the neighborhood. It made sense for his youngest daughter to go to Simley.
Franco’s heart, though, stayed on the West Side.
“There’s not too many neighborhoods left in Minnesota like this,” Franco said.
In the early 2000s, Humboldt was ridden with violence and abysmal test scores. The school was failing, and St. Paul Public Schools placed it on academic probation.
“We were a dumping ground,” Franco said. “Anyone who got kicked out of other schools, they got sent here. It demoralized, it deteriorated. It spilled into the community, it spilled down into our youth centers.”
Meanwhile, the West Side Boosters youth sports program, particularly the football team, is a powerhouse. The middle school team has won three consecutive city titles.
Not all of the program’s youth athletes come from the West Side. But Joe Smith, a seventh- and eighth-grade Boosters coach and now Humboldt’s offensive coordinator, estimated 85 percent live or go to school in the area.
When it comes time to pick a high school, the athletes often take advantage of the state’s open enrollment law and go to Simley, Henry Sibley, Cretin-Derham Hall or elsewhere.
But since Mike Sodomka became principal in 2006, Humboldt’s staff turned over by 50 percent. Academic programs were reorganized around environmental studies and college readiness.
“We are a different school than we were six, eight years ago,” Sodomka said.
Humboldt’s coaches, including assistants such as Larry Deeton and Bobby Cruz, aspire to tap into the West Side Boosters base and use their relationships to reclaim neighborhood students.
“I think if we can keep our talent here, we can see change right away,” Smith said.
After Iyanna Rodgers finished eighth grade, she had to choose where she wanted to go to school. She already had played basketball at Humboldt for two years. Tyler Chavez, Humboldt’s girls’ basketball coach, convinced her to stay.
“That’s what we’re trying to show them,” said Chavez, the football’s team’s receivers coach and the junior high baseball coach. “You don’t need blood to be family.”
Rodgers said her family wanted her to go to St. Paul Central. But Chavez told Rodgers if she committed to basketball, he would commit to doing whatever he could to help her.
Rodgers is not a West Side resident, and she is only one example. But her story is one the coaches hope to replicate in football and other sports.
“I thought I could make a difference,” Rodgers said.
Still, Humboldt faces a perception battle. Rodgers said that’s why many of her friends went elsewhere.
“A lot of people think it’s a bad school, but that’s just what people think,” Rodgers said. “It’s a nice school, and people are graduating and doing good things.”
Since 2011, Humboldt’s graduation rate has jumped from 53 percent to 80.6, Sodomka said, now on par with the rest of St. Paul’s public schools.
But is a school really a school if it’s not part of the community?
“You should be going to your neighborhood school,” Sodomka said. “You should be able to walk home, walk to school. You should be involved in athletics, you should be involved in after-school programs.”
While Flores’ open house in February did not go as intended, coaches, teachers and administrators went on with the plan, reiterating their mission to one another.
Humboldt does not have alluring uniforms, winning tradition or even lights on its football field. For now its chief asset is the passion of Flores and his fellow coaches.
That night, Flores looked at them, the teachers and the administrators in attendance, along with a few Humboldt students who presented at the meeting, and one person who attended from the West Siders for Strong Schools organization.
He acknowledged he was disappointed with the turnout.
But what he said next is what gives Humboldt a fighting chance.
“Just because this didn’t happen tonight,” Flores said, “we’re not going to stop.”