The classic canon, etched forever into football's mythology, states that no team achieves success unless composed of 22 equally important parts. No one man is more vital than the next, no individual player's role more critical to the outcome than another's. If one consistently falters, they all falter.
That is the mantra of football, drilled into players from Pop Warner to the NFL.
In high school football, a premier running back upends the notion of egalitarianism on the gridiron. He can mask mediocrity, hide disadvantages, overcome outright incompetence.
The best prep quarterbacks still require receivers who can get open. The best receivers must have someone who can put the ball into their hands. But the top running backs? All they need is the sliver of an opening, if that. The best don't have to depend on superior blockers or clever offensive schemes. Their power, their agility, their speed render them wholly self-sufficient. Crashing through the line, galloping around or through tacklers, sprinting across open field, they bring crowds to their feet and induce grown men to hug perfect strangers. They bend games to their will.
Tariq Jones of Edmondson-Westside High School wonders whether he is that kind of a running back.
It is mid-September, and each night in his home on North Mount Olivet Lane in West Baltimore, he sits before the computer screen watching high school highlight films, mesmerized by those virtuoso ball carriers. With a few clicks of a mouse, Tariq can see countless prep stars playing in distant cities, breaking tackles and scoring touchdowns. In quiet moments, the grainy Internet video inspires him, showing him moves he can incorporate into his own repertoire.
His arsenal will need to be especially potent Saturday when Edmondson takes on City College in the biggest game of the season. The outcome largely rests on his performance. Edmondson's quarterbacks are inexperienced and unsure of themselves, and the coaches will need Tariq to supply most of the offense. City knows that shutting down Tariq is the key to victory. If Edmondson wants to keep its dream of a perfect season alive, he has to deliver.
In recent weeks, he has studied clips of Noel Devine, a Florida high school running back who, at 5 feet 8, 175 pounds, is similar in size to Tariq. Devine is a minor celebrity, thanks in part to his highlight films on YouTube. He has been the subject of a long profile in a national magazine, and virtually every major college program is eager to sign him. Some accounts say he receives more than 70 letters a day from recruiters.
Tariq (pronounced TAR-ick), who has dark skin, thick arms and a barrel chest, doesn't feel envious when watching Devine, just as he isn't envious when he watches another of his idols, New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush. He is a realist. Devine and Bush only confirm what he suspects about himself. At the high school level, he's good enough to take over games. His coaches admire his toughness and think he can be one of the city's best running backs this year, gaining well over 100 yards a game. But in his heart, Tariq has begun to realize that he lacks the breakaway speed necessary for football stardom. At least beyond high school.
People from his neighborhood always feed him nonsense, saying, "I bet USC is looking at you" or "I know Florida State is going to call." It makes him laugh. Try South Dakota State, he wants to tell them, or Bowie State. But mostly, he just says thanks and keeps quiet.
He has received a trickle of letters and calls from recruiters, but none of it is gushing. Big-time coaches aren't going to fly to Baltimore to watch him play, even if he does become one of the area's best players. The city doesn't have a reputation for producing elite football talent, so coaches from larger schools tend to focus their efforts elsewhere.
He doesn't blame them or spend much time worrying about it. Though he has loved playing football ever since Pop Warner, he, unlike some of his teammates, harbors no delusions that he'll ever make it to the pros. He wants football to help him achieve different aspirations.
It already had, in one respect. His football skills had enabled him to fit in at Edmondson after he transferred from an Islamic private school as a sophomore. He was the only openly Muslim student at Edmondson, at least from what he had surmised, and when he first showed up in school, his quiet, contemplative personality struck some people as odd.
Perceptions changed, and Tariq opened up a bit, especially once he started to shine on the football field. Football gave him ready-made friends and social confidence. But now, he hopes it will do even more: help him to obtain a college scholarship, which would be a big help to a family of modest means like his. He knows he is good enough to play at the Division I-AA level - a step down from Division I-A programs such as Maryland and Penn State - and that is as much as he wants.
Because it is schooling, not the football - as much as he loves it - that is the point. Tariq is unusually ruminative for a kid his age. He gets annoyed when students goof off or cause distractions in his classes. Sometimes his friends tease him, asking him what he is thinking about when they catch him, in the locker room or in class, staring into space. He doesn't feel like admitting that he has been brooding about the Iraq war or genocide in Sudan.
Not many of his friends know that his goal is to be a social worker like his father, Maalik Jones. He wants to help poor people - poor Muslims especially - and to do something important. Something that would make a difference.
To achieve that goal, he needs college. And to pay for college, he probably needs football.
No one has to tell Tariq Jones how much is riding on him Saturday.
The big game: Part 3 of 5
On the ball off the field
Edmondson star, passionate about football, tackles his classroom responsibilities with equal fervor
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