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On the ball off the field

Sun Reporters

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.

It is not always true, particularly as the game is played in high school.

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.

Transfer from Islamic school Early Wednesday morning, on the second floor of Edmondson-Westside High School, in a noisy hall crowded with impatient teenagers, Kyle Jackson blindly digs through his locker, looking for a book.

He's a broad-shouldered middle linebacker with a thin, wispy mustache, prone to smiling most of the time. But at the moment, he looks like a man lost in a daydream during a dull Sunday sermon.

The boredom in his expression evaporates the instant he spots Tariq strolling through the crowd.

"Yo Tariq!" he shouts, a devilish grin spreading across his face. "Did you see what they saying on [the Internet]? They saying we can't stop them!"

"For real? They talking [expletive]?" Tariq asks, more amused than angry.

"Yo, they daring us to run, yo! And they saying we can't throw on them!" Kyle says, slamming his locker shut. He stuffs a textbook into his bag, then backpedals down the hallway as the bell rings.

Tariq rolls his eyes. It's funny, but not surprising. On his page, he has been getting scores of anonymous messages this week - some from City College players, he suspects - telling him that they're going to "destroy him" Saturday night. Plenty of his teammates have been receiving them, too, trash talk in the digital age.

He should be in Spanish, but instead he's milling outside the front office, waiting to get an identification badge. The school has just started requiring them because of all the nonstudents wandering the halls and stirring up trouble, but Tariq has lost his.

Right then, Dante Jones, Edmondson's football coach rounds a corner and spots his star running back, not in class. "Where you supposed to be, son?" Jones asks. He's smiling, but it's a serious question.

"I'm going to get my ID right now, I swear," Tariq says.

He's not in trouble. Academically, Tariq is one of the best students on the football team, a team captain who is polite and respectful. Jones shoots him a stern, yet playful look anyway. He tries hard not to play favorites.

"You best hurry up then," Jones says, twirling a large ring of keys around his finger.

"Yes, sir."

Tariq owes Jones a lot and, like many Edmondson players, he doesn't want to disappoint him. For years, Tariq, the youngest of seven kids, had begged his parents - now divorced - to let him leave Islamic private school, which had hours of mandatory religious class and no sports. They worried about violence and the quality of a public school education. But they could see how determined he was to play high school football. The problem was that when they finally gave in, Edmondson wouldn't let him enroll. His private school wasn't accredited, and Edmondson's administration wouldn't allow any of his credits to transfer.

It was Jones - an assistant coach at the time - who fought hard for him, arguing with the front office for weeks on his behalf. He knew Tariq was a smart kid who could speak and write fluent Arabic and that his presence in the school would benefit all Edmondson students by exposing them to a different culture.

In the end, Principal Delphine Lee agreed. If she hadn't, Tariq says, he might have left school and tried to get his GED. His mother, an elementary school teacher, probably would have resisted, but his father was always encouraging him to grow up and get a job. He felt fortunate that it was a discussion his family never had to have.

He'd never played running back before he got to Edmondson. He was a linebacker and a defensive lineman. He wasn't even sure he wanted to carry the ball. But on the first day of football practice, Dante Jones and Pete Pompey, Edmondson's esteemed coach, who was in his final year before retirement, told Tariq to line up with the running backs. The first time he took a handoff, he fumbled.

Give it to him again, Pompey told Jones. I know a running back when I see one.

Pompey was right. Tariq blossomed, and soon he was breaking long runs, sidestepping linebackers and plowing over cornerbacks. His family, hardly sports fans, started attending games. His mother, Naisha Muhammad, and his three sisters, three brothers and seven half-brothers sat in the stands, the women wearing traditional Muslim headscarves, holding up signs cheering him on. He felt blessed.

The success and the attention it brought was exhilarating, yet he didn't have the confidence of most star players. During summer workouts, when a talented sophomore running back, Terrence Wilson, impressed some of Edmondson's older players with his size and speed. Tariq went to Jones and volunteered to move to fullback. It would mean fewer carries for him while he mainly blocked for Wilson, but, for the good of the team, he was willing to do it.

Jones told him he was crazy, that he was poised to have an outstanding senior year. But privately, some of the coaches think that Tariq's deliberateness - a welcome attribute away from the football field - prevents him from being the running back he can be. He still tends to hesitate, thinking instead of reacting when he has the ball.

Against most opponents, it doesn't matter. In last week's game, he ran for 134 yards and two touchdowns against Douglass, punctuating one of his scores with a front flip into the end zone from the 2-yard line. On that day, he made it look easy. But against a fast, disciplined defense such as City's, he knows he will have to be far better.

Fearless on the field For most of Edmondson's football players, the 20-minute lunch period is for socializing, not eating. Most players go without food because they consider the cafeteria menu borderline inedible. When practice is over, they cross Edmondson Avenue and gorge themselves at Kimmy's, a buffet restaurant where you pay by sliding money through a drawer to a man protected by bulletproof glass.

The cafeteria still buzzes with activity, however, with kids pushing in line to buy chips or soda while others holler across the lunchroom to get the attention of a friend. Today, a group of players sits around a table in the "Seniors Only" section, laughing and joking, ignoring the chaos that surrounds them. The City game, once again, is the topic of discussion. The players are wondering whether James Carmon, the Knights' 6-foot-7, 330-pound junior lineman, is as dominating as word has it or just another huge kid with lead feet, long arms and little skill.

"Yo, I heard that boy ain't nothing."

"I hear different. My people say they saw him last year when he was at Overlea, and he ain't no joke. He look like a mountain coming at you."

They can't be certain what is fact and what is fiction. Coach Jones doesn't want them watching film of opponents' games, on the theory that film can be deceptive. They might underestimate a player such as Carmon if the film happens to catch him taking a play or two off. Jones prefers that his players get their information only from him and the other coaches. And the information he wants his players to get about City College is that they are in for a war.

Jones knows his players will still try to scout City no matter what prohibitions he lays down. He is right. They surf the Internet for any images they can find or, short of that, seek out impressions from friends who have seen City in action.

While the players continue speculating about City, a baby-faced student in baggy jeans and a white T-shirt walks into the lunchroom, carrying a heavy wooden chair. Without warning, he raises it above his shoulders and heaves it across a crowded table into the face of another student.

The lunchroom erupts with catcalls and shouting. Students rush forward for a good look, but the football players look on with indifference. A large male school security guard sprints into the room and bear-hugs the chair-thrower, dragging him, kicking and cursing, into the hallway. Several teachers arrive, and the conflict dissipates as fast as it began.

Dionta Cox, a cornerback, gives the scene only a cursory glance before returning to his chicken nuggets. Fights aren't frequent at Edmondson, but hardly a rarity either.

Dionta, (pronounced Dee-ON-tay), undersized for a football player, has shoulder-length dreadlocks and a wiry frame that's all elbows and sharps angles. He was born in the city but moved to Howard County with his mother when his parents split up when he was 6. He couldn't say it was a hardship living out there - he played a lot of soccer, still saw his father often and attended some of the best public schools in the country - but Dionta never felt comfortable. In his mind, Columbia was affluent and white, and his family was neither.

When he got to high school, the football coaches at Wilde Lake looked at his size (5 feet 7) and, he believed, wrote him off. He begged his mother to let him move in with his father, Deon, in West Baltimore so that he could attend Edmondson. He wanted to be around more black kids.

Taleshia Cox didn't mind her son living with his father, but she was doubtful about the academics at Edmondson and worried about violence there. What mother in her right mind, after all, would let her son leave one of the best school systems in the country so that he could attend a school in one of the most troubled?

He was a tough kid, though. She had to admit that. And football taught him lessons and gave him confidence that other sports didn't. Polite in school and at home, on the football field he transformed. He was aggressive and fearless, talking trash to larger, stronger players. He wouldn't let anyone intimidate him.

Football would help him make friends, she understood, and his uncle, Dante Jones, the head coach at Edmondson, would push him to succeed in school. Dionta was intelligent, but at Wilde Lake, he seemed short on motivation. Jones would force him to approach schoolwork the same way he did football. Average grades not accompanied by maximum effort would not fly. She agreed to let him go, with the understanding that she'd yank him right back to Columbia if his grades dropped.

He feels more comfortable at Edmondson. Dionta and his uncle are close. Jones is happy to joke with him, as he does today when he shows up in the lunchroom to tease him and steal one of his chicken nuggets. But Jones is hard on Dionta, too. Harder, even, than he is with most kids.

When Dionta first came to Edmondson, some of the older players teased him - behind his back, according to one of the assistant coaches - declaring that he was too small and not very good, and that if he played, it would only be because of nepotism.

Dionta made them rethink their first impressions. He worked harder than just about anyone to get better, lifting weights, running wind sprints, practicing his technique. He isn't a star, but he is dependable. Steady. And he doesn't get burned deep. Ever. Other players have more flash, more talent. They might make a big interception or a game-changing hit. But Dionta doesn't make mistakes, and that is important. There were no complaints from his teammates - none that he heard - when Jones named him one of the team's four captains before the season.

As with Tariq, football has given Dionta confidence and friendships that might have been beyond him otherwise. He isn't much of a college football prospect, but it doesn't bother him much. Unlike some of his teammates, he planned to go to college with or without football next year.

Edmondson has also introduced him to a passion even more consuming than football. He has begun studying media production and daydreams about working behind the camera or on the radio someday. Each morning, driving to Edmondson, he tunes in to Marc Clarke and the Big Phat Morning show on 92.3 FM and imagines himself behind the microphone, expounding his views on politics, race relations, music and life. As far as he is concerned, the transfer to Edmondson has been the smartest decision he has ever made.

Some signs of nerves At practice Wednesday, the first signs of nerves emerge. James "Buddy" Thorne, Edmondson's senior quarterback, is off target with nearly every throw, and Carroll Washington, a brash sophomore who splits time with Buddy, isn't much better.

Markkeder McCall, one of the fastest kids on the team, is playing cornerback, and today he's tormenting Buddy by reading his eyes and intercepting his passes on almost every play.

When Markkeder intercepts Buddy for the third time, Tariq decides he has seen enough. He gets in Buddy's face.

"Come on, Buddy. Come on," he says. "You scaring me, yo. You scaring me."

Sterling has been annoyed throughout practice about the clowning around. He wonders whether the team's early-season victories have made the players overconfident.

He's not alone. Several feet away, Coach Jones shakes his head. He's worried. Worried that success has gone to his players' heads. All the talk around school about this being one of the best teams in Red Storm history isn't helping his kids focus. The players seem unmoved by Sterling's typical motivational chatter. They seem distracted today. Sluggish.

City will be ready to play. Jones would bet on that. George Petrides, the Knights' curly-haired, stone-faced coach, has been winning big games for 32 years at City College, two years longer than Jones has been alive. He knows how to coach in big games.

"We have not arrived yet," he says at the end of practice, with the team gathered around him. "If you believe that all of your hard work has ended, you're in the wrong place, Jack."

They have been working hard during the last hour of practice, but it doesn't put the coach's mind at ease.

Three days to go.

Not much time left.

He will know soon enough if they have truly been listening.

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