Sterling Jones sits on a concrete ledge above rusty metal bleachers at Edmondson-Westside High School watching the school band labor through a last rehearsal before tonight's football game. His feet dangle over the ledge, but it is hardly an image of relaxation. He nervously rocks back and forth.
The biggest game of his senior year is tonight, Saturday, Sept. 23, Edmondson versus City College under the lights at Polytechnic Institute's football stadium.
It is still hours away, and the waiting has become torture.
The Red Storm coaches have fired up the grill nearby, and the air smells of charcoal and lighter fluid. It's sunny, and as the wind kicks up, a quiet memory flits into Sterling's mind.
"This is the kind of day you want to fly a kite, yo," Sterling says to Kyle Jackson, his teammate and best friend.
"I ain't never learned how to, yo," says Kyle.
"Man, I loved it. I loved my kite," Sterling says. "It was a Spider-Man kite. I only flew it one time, but I still remember it."
"Yeah," Kyle says, grinning.
For the next several minutes, they don't say another word.
Six hours later, Sterling stands near midfield of Poly's Lumsden-Scott Stadium, screaming toward the sky, barking at anyone within earshot. He's on the balls of his feet, bouncing from side to side like a prizefighter, and he pounds his chest, punctuating each word with a mixture of rage, excitement and provocation.
"We coming, shorty!" Sterling, a safety, screams across the field. "Westside coming! We coming, shorty! Westside! Somebody better get me a knife and fork, 'cause I'm hungry, yo! I'm hungry!"
Minutes ago, coach Dante Jones stood before his team in the drab, colorless concrete locker room and asked for a moment of stillness, then a prayer. He locked eyes with each of his players, beseeching them to play with passion and pride.
"It's time to show City who run the city!" he yelled, then he sent his team charging out of the tunnel onto the field. From the Red Storm fans in the metal bleachers -- many waving signs and wearing Edmondson's red and white colors -- came a swelling roar.
Now the team gathers at midfield, shoulder to shoulder. Kyle's eyes are slits, and the linebacker's face is frozen with malice. Linemen Dajuan "Boo Boo" Smith and Jerome Baskerville smash each other's shoulder pads, banging their helmets together. Cornerback Dionta Cox shakes his head, waving his finger, vowing not to surrender a catch tonight.
Tariq Jones, Edmondson's usually reserved running back, has worked himself into such a frenzy that tears run down his face and spill onto his crimson jersey.
Sterling glares across the field at City's players, in their white jerseys and shiny black helmets. For 10 months he has been waiting for this, ever since City beat Edmondson, 8-0, in the second-to-last game of the dismal 2005 season. He wants payback.
City wins the coin flip and chooses to receive.
At 6:58 p.m. the right foot of Edmondson kicker Keon Fisher strikes the ball, booming it high into the air and deep into the end zone for a touchback.
The waiting is over. No more uneven practices or tedious study halls. No essays to write on Beowulf, no more dances or funerals to attend, no more film to watch. In 48 minutes of football, the Red Storm players will learn whether they are what they believe: the best in Baltimore.
On the opening play, defensive end Alge Berry and Kyle slam into City running back Brian Dunston, stuffing him for a 1-yard gain. The Edmondson fans snarl with delight.
On second down, Kyle drives Dunston backward for a 1-yard loss. When Sterling collars a City wide receiver, holding him to a 7-yard gain, City has to punt. Sterling pumps his fist and bobs his head.
Even Edmondson's demanding assistant coach, Sam Walker, can't contain himself. "That's right! That's right!" he screams. "Good work, Sterling. That's the way to step up and make a play!"
Red Storm senior Alston Williams gathers a line-drive punt at Edmondson's 37-yard line, then breaks to his left, his feet pounding the turf. He dodges a tackler and cuts upfield along the sideline.
"Go, boy!" Dante Jones shouts, louder and louder with each stride by Alston. "Go! Go!"
He slips another tackler, darts into open space and, behind two good blocks, races toward the end zone. A defender trips him at the 20, but Alston bounces to his feet at once, letting loose a howl.
But before the sound ebbs, players have spotted the yellow flag way back at the other end of the field, near where Alston caught the punt. An illegal block. On Edmondson. The play is nullified. Jones winces, tearing off his red hat.
Moments later, Edmondson is the beneficiary of a similar call against City. A long touchdown pass to Knights star Dominick Roseborough is called back. But Edmondson can't get rolling against City's stout defense. Roseborough, who also plays linebacker, is proving too much for Edmondson's blockers. He keeps stuffing Tariq's runs for little or no gain.
On offense, Edmondson is all nerves. In the end, Jones decided to give quarterback Carroll Washington the start, but he's not getting rid of the ball fast enough and takes two ugly sacks. Quarterback James "Buddy" Thorne, who is rotating series with Carroll, looks no better. He keeps throwing off his back foot, missing wide receivers. Worst of all, on the rare occasions when Tariq breaks free, he is tentative, missing the few opportunities City does provide.
"If you kept running, we had them there," Walker growls at him after Edmondson fails to pick up a first down on third-and-five late in the first quarter. "C'mon, you better than that!"
Jones and his staff sense that they are falling into the game plan of City's cunning coach, George Petrides, a master of winning games with defense while patiently playing for superior field position. Jones knows Petrides is just waiting for Edmondson to make a big mistake.
So far, Edmondson's defense has been as ferocious as City's. Twice in the first quarter, an Edmondson defensive player hits a City ball carrier so hard that the City player's helmet comes flying off. Edmondson's fans scream in appreciation.
But with less than a minute left in the first quarter, Edmondson's defense cracks. On third-and-14, City's sophomore quarterback, Ellis Foster, lofts a pass down the sidelines to a wide receiver. Neither of the Red Storm defenders sees the ball thrown, and the receiver out-jumps them both, hauling it in at the 18-yard line.
Jones again yanks his hat off, and his ropelike dreadlocks whip across his face as he turns to find Walker. "We've got to find the ball in the air! That's a play we got to have!"
Two plays later, Foster finds another receiver, Nathan Ayers, at the 5-yard line. He slips a tackle and stretches for the end zone.
Sterling and Kyle stand at the goal line -- hands on their hips -- in disbelief while City players and their fans celebrate. City adds a two-point conversion on an easy run by Foster.
City College 8, Edmondson 0.
"There is no reason they should have been down there in the first place," snarls Walker. "You gonna have to show me your hearts now.
'Snap out of it' But the second quarter goes no better. Edmondson's defense plays doggedly, but the offense sputters, as if it is moving through ankle-deep mud. City's defensive line, anchored by a 6-foot-7, 330-pound junior named James Carmon, shoves Edmondson's offensive line backward as though the Red Storm players are on roller skates.
Six minutes before halftime, Edmondson falters again. A fumbled pitch gives the Knights the ball on the Red Storm 10-yard line. City's fans, sensing the possibility of burying Edmondson early, erupt.
Four plays later, they are rewarded. On fourth down, Edmondson's defense can do nothing to stop the 230-pound Roseborough as he bulls his way across the goal line.
Sterling hears Carmon mocking him. "Yeah, shorty," City's gigantic lineman bellows. "Yeah, shorty. We coming! We coming!"
The two-point conversion is almost a foregone conclusion.
City 16, Edmondson 0.
Dionta never would have believed that Edmondson could look helpless, not like this. "Why are we in this daze, yo?" he screams as the teams head to the locker rooms for halftime. "Snap out of it. This game ain't over yet. They think it's over, but it's not. They think we done, but we ain't! We ain't!"
Edmondson's band, looking nervous, shuffles onto the field for its halftime performance.
Inside the Edmondson locker room, Jones is stern with his team but not angry. Hasn't he always told them that football was just like life? You get knocked on the seat of your pants, you stand up. You fail a class, you study harder and take it again.
"I don't know what you worried about," he says. "We gonna win this game. I know it. We're good right now. I don't know why you keep missing so many tackles, but we good. ... It's real simple, though. You want to go out and fight? Or you want to sit here and make excuses?
"This is the reason you did all that work in the offseason, right here. This is it right here. I know ya'll got it in you. I seen ya'll do it against Linganore the first game of the year."
The problem, everyone knows, is that it's not Linganore out there.
A crucial mistake Edmondson's first drive of the third quarter goes nowhere. Tariq gets bottled up at the line and can't break free. Another punt.
This time, however City makes a crucial mistake. The returner fumbles the punt deep in his territory. Edmondson, stymied until now, still has a chance to climb back into the game.
Buddy -- who spent the first half running for cover -- shows swagger for the first time all night. At the 45-yard line, he drops back, plants his back foot and completes a pass to Kareem Damon at the 20.
Edmondson puts the ball into Tariq's hands, and he pounds it forward. On his third straight run, he takes one quick jab step, makes a tackler miss and spurts into the end zone. Touchdown.
The band bursts into song. Here come the Red Storm!
In the midst of the sideline celebration, Jones glimpses the referees huddling, then spots another yellow flag on the turf. His chin drops and his eyes close.
Another penalty. On Edmondson. No touchdown.
On the next play, 5 yards farther back, Edmondson goes right back to Tariq. He's nailed at the 2-yard line but lunges toward the goal line, arms extended. He is inches from breaking the plane of the end zone when the ball is knocked loose. It bounces off helmets, shoulder pads and limbs, and squirts into the end zone. Players from both teams hurl themselves after it, and the ball disappears under a pile of them.
Referees pull bodies out of the heap, like longshoremen working the docks. The last one they reach wears a white jersey.
Tariq tears off his gloves. His eyes never leave the ground as he jogs back to the sideline.
'Just tape me up' With 7:31 remaining in the game, Edmondson finally gets on the scoreboard with a touchdown on a 9-yard pass from Carroll to Darrin Johnson to make it 16-6. But Carroll misfires on the two-point conversion. Edmondson still needs two more scores to tie or win.
Jerome's ankle is throbbing, and the offensive lineman is nearly in tears. On the last drive, he twisted it at the bottom of a pile. Each step is agony. Boo Boo and the city schools trainer help him to the bench, where she gently removes his shoe. His face is contorted.
"Just tape me up, yo," Jerome says. "I can go."
"No," the trainer says. "You're done. You're not going back in."
"I'm not done," Jerome pleads. "Just re-tape my ankle." Coach Jones catches the trainer's eye and shakes his head.
"Faster, yo. Faster, yo. You're moving too slow," Jerome growls as the trainer winds the tape. On the field, Edmondson gets the ball back, but Buddy, under heavy pressure, throws an interception. He and Boo Boo argue heatedly about what went wrong.
When the trainer finishes taping, Jerome still insists that he can go back in. "Coach Sam said he need me," he begs.
But when Walker strides past the bench, he looks at Jerome and says curtly, "Baskerville, you're done."
Jerome buries his head in his hands.
City still has the ball. The Knights are running out the clock on Edmondson. The bleachers thin as Red Storm fans make their way to the exits. Several City players begin to celebrate on their sideline, pointing to the crowd and pounding their chests. Football order, in their eyes, has been maintained. They aren't just Knights; they're the lords of the gridiron in Baltimore.
Time to 'work harder' "There's no reason to cry. We lost, and now we going to take it like men."
Coach Jones has gathered the team in the end zone, asked them to take a knee. Several players are in tears. Cornerback Darrin Johnson sobs on Sterling's shoulder. Tariq doesn't answer those trying to console him. He finished with 107 yards rushing, but it was a quiet 107. The fumble is all he can think about.
"This just shows you how much work we have to do," Jones says. "You came out tonight with all the rah-rah in the world and didn't have nothing to back it up."
He scans the players' faces, searching for acknowledgement.
"I saw it the whole week," he continues. "We were all riled up, thinking we had arrived. Now, are they a better team than you? No. They just executed, and you didn't. It's that simple. But this is just like I've been telling you about life. You get knocked on your ass, you get back up."
That's all he has to say for now. Dwayne Green, Edmondson's offensive coordinator, says a few words, as does Walker, promising that next week's practices will be grueling and merciless. The coaches gather the equipment and walk away. Jones wants the sting of this loss to sink in. Maybe then he'll see what kind of team this really is.
At first, everyone tries to speak at once. How could they have let City beat them again? How could they have played this poorly? They are furious and heartbroken, cursing and crying simultaneously. The voices overlap and slam together, like ocean waves crashing against rocks, until no one can hear, or understand, a word. Darrin is still crying softly, unable to stop.
Then, a voice is heard from the middle of the circle.
"Listen to me, yo."
It's Kyle. Everyone else, even Sterling, stops speaking. Heads turn. Eyes, many full of tears, focus on him as he gets to his feet.
"Listen to me, yo," Kyle says again, waiting for their attention. He looks around, then urges his teammates to stand with him.
"I wouldn't play for nobody else in this city, you hear me? Nobody. We together. We a family. We going to overcome this. I know that. It's just time for us to work harder."
Now it's Sterling's turn again.
"We got a long way to go. We do. But we ain't got nothing to be sad about, yo," Sterling says. "We made mistakes, but I bet you next week we don't make those same mistakes. I promise you we won't."
"Put you hands in here," Kyle says. "I want to hear you say TEAM. On three.
"ONE! TWO! THREE! ..."
The kids from Edmondson link arms, a group of young men standing in a circle, shouting the word TEAM, the dark Baltimore night kept at bay by the fluorescent glow of stadium lights.
EpilogueThe dream of an undefeated season was gone after the City College game. Even a winning season no longer looked like a guarantee. The bus ride back to Edmondson was a silent one that night.
In the days ahead, some players wondered how much damage they had done themselves. Would the 2006 season mirror the disappointment of 2005? Would college recruiters write off Edmondson players and abort the hopes many of them harbored?
When the players returned to school Monday, the sting of losing only got worse. Other students mocked them for their cockiness.
Certainly, on that day, no one would have predicted the extraordinary season that lay ahead.
Later, everyone would point to two crucial events after the City College loss that changed everything.
The first occurred when Brian Jenkins, Edmondson's running backs coach, sat down with Tariq in front of a television days after the City game. They watched Tariq's runs, analyzing his cuts, his spins, his dancing in traffic and, especially the way he over-thought his next move each time he broke free. You're not trusting yourself, Jenkins told him. Don't think. Just run hard. Run with confidence. You are a better player than this.
The lesson hit home. Tariq was a different runner the rest of the season. A dominant runner whose performances defined games.
Another change also had a huge impact on the team's fortunes. After several days of deliberation, coach Jones and offensive coordinator Green decided to give the majority of playing time at quarterback to sophomore Carroll Washington, even though it meant benching a senior, James "Buddy" Thorne.
It was a risky move. If Buddy reacted to the demotion by moping and complaining, Jones knew, it could divide the team. But Buddy did not react that way. Instead, he made it his mission to work with Carroll each day at practice, helping to improve the younger player's technique on handoffs, to learn the plays and to read coverages. He acted, in many ways, like a coach. Even Carroll was surprised.
"Most kids in situations like that would have moped around and become a cancer to the team," Jones said. "Not Buddy."
The loss to City College proved humbling, but also motivating. In Edmondson's next five games, the Red Storm outscored their opponents 151-2. That included a 12-0 win over Dunbar on Oct. 6 in the mud and the rain, Edmondson's first win over its archrival in three years.
The Red Storm roared into the playoffs. Under their jerseys, they wore red and white T-shirts emblazoned with "We Will Win State." They then dismantled three playoff opponents to earn a berth in the Class 2A state championship game, held at M&T Bank Stadium on Dec. 9. Their old nemesis, City College, which went undefeated during the regular season, didn't survive the second round of the playoffs.
Before the championship game against McDonogh, Edmondson's team captains, Sterling Jones, Tariq Jones, Kyle Jackson and Dionta Cox, walked to midfield, arms linked, for the coin flip. Sterling, nerves jangling, was running on only a few hours of restless sleep.
In the opening half, Edmondson played undisciplined football, scarily reminiscent of the City College game. The Red Storm went into the locker room clinging to an 8-3 lead. In the stands, jittery Red Storm fans feared the worst.
Tariq refused to let it happen.
On the opening play of the third quarter, he burst through a gaping hole for 49 yards. On the next play, he scored a 16-yard touchdown. From then on, he put on a performance worthy of all those grainy Internet video clips he'd studied for inspiration, rushing for 308 yards on 34 carries. It was one of the most dominating individual performances in the history of Maryland's state championship games. When Tariq lost his helmet at the end of a long run, he bounced to his feet and strutted back to the huddle wagging his tongue in the direction of the Red Storm fans.
Edmondson's defense made sure there would be no McDonogh comeback. Sterling recovered a fumble, then, on offense, ran for a fourth-quarter touchdown. Kyle led the team in tackles. The Red Storm sacked McDonogh's quarterback nine times. Dionta Cox, who finished the year with five interceptions, gave up just one short completion.
Late in the game, with victory assured, Jones inserted Buddy at quarterback to let him throw a few passes as a reward for the graciousness he had shown during the season. On the last throw of his high school career, Buddy launched a 50-yard spiral to teammate Ralph Todd, who caught it for a touchdown.
The final score: Edmondson 37, McDonogh 9.
The Red Storm were state champions for the first time in school history.
The players dumped water on Jones, and he pointed to the sky, a thank-you to God. With the win, he became the first Baltimorean to win a state football title as a player, then another as a head coach. Much of that, he told reporters after the game, was a tribute to his mentor, Pete Pompey, who watched the game from the Edmondson sideline.
Sterling jumped into the stands, where parents, teachers, family and friends rejoiced. Tariq laughed, cried, then laughed again. The Beast -- Sam Walker -- hugged anyone who wandered into his vicinity, and he couldn't stop grinning.
Players took turns speaking at the post-game news conference, each declaring, without hesitation, that he wouldn't change a single thing that had happened that season, not even the one blemish on the team's record.
"The City game ended up being the key to everything," Kyle Jackson said. "It was the best thing that could have happened to us."
In the locker room -- the Ravens' locker room! -- after a trophy ceremony, Jones stood apart from his players, near the back, holding the tiny hand of his 5-year-old son, Dante Jr. He scanned the room, listening to the players joke about girls, speculate about the size of their state championship rings and anticipate how it would feel Monday when they returned to school as heroes. He hoped that the confidence each of them felt at this moment would never evaporate.
In the coming months, the future for many of them would begin to take shape.
Sterling continues to dream about the NFL. Right after the season, he received scholarship offers to play football at Bowie State, Morgan State and St. Augustine's in North Carolina. None of them was his dream school, Virginia Tech, but it will be enough to get him away from Wheeler Avenue, to introduce him to a whole new world and to allow him to continue to play football.
Kyle got similar offers from Bowie State, Morgan State and St. Augustine's. Hampton and Delaware State have also expressed interest. The big schools he had hoped for never called, a mild disappointment, but one he says he doesn't intend to dwell on. He likes Bowie State for its business school, and intends, one day, to own his own business.
Dionta has been gratified by achievements off the field. He recently won a city and countywide competition for filming and editing a short piece on how to navigate success. Encouraged by his strong senior year, Dionta realized that he wanted to continue playing football no matter what. His size has scared away some schools, although North Carolina Central and St. Augustine's have been in touch. Even without football, he is college-bound.
Tariq has scholarship offers from several small schools but is leaning toward attending Bowie State so that he can remain close to his mother. He's still not convinced he can be a star at the college level, but a college education is what he was after and is what he'll get.
For other players, the path may be less certain. But if they need it, they know they can count on getting support, guidance, even the occasional hug, from a football coach with dreadlocks and a calm, stern voice.
On Monday, after the state championship game, Dante Jones opened the door to his cluttered office, next to Edmondson's gym. He glanced at the trophies and plaques Pompey had won during his long career. One day, this year's state championship trophy might sit among them, but for now it would reside in the school's front office, where everyone who enters the school can see it.
He took a second, then, to gaze up at the red No. 7 jersey pinned to the wall above his desk, the jersey of his first quarterback, Darryl Smith, who was killed in a shooting in 2005.
It was time to get back to work. Because this week, just like every week at Edmondson-Westside High School, young men's lives were at stake.
firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun