It's a lost cause.

In the crumbling cafeteria at Edmondson-Westside High School on a Thursday afternoon in mid-September, the Red Storm football team endures the final moments of mandatory study hall. But, at the moment, physics, American history and pre-calculus could not be further from their thoughts. All they can think about is Saturday. Edmondson vs. City College. The biggest game of the year, the obsession that crowds everything else out.

And it shows on this September day.

Sterling Jones chews on his fingernails. Tariq Jones yanks on his sideburns. Kyle Jackson drums his fingers on the tabletop. Dionta Cox, usually talkative, is quiet.

If only kickoff would get here already.

"C'mon, Cookie," Tariq, a running back, pleads. "Do your thing."

Chris "Cookie" Green, one of Edmondson's cornerbacks, takes off his backpack, and most eyes in the room, 25 pairs or so, zero in on him. He's wearing a dark maroon T-shirt that hangs down past his waist and baggy jeans.

"Yeah, Cookie, show us them skills," says Sterling, a safety.

Cookie grins. He's used to this, performing feats of athletic and acrobatic daring on command. Even though he's only a sophomore, he's one of the quickest, most athletic players Edmondson has. He sizes up the wall like a trapeze artist examining his ropes.

"Just don't break your neck," says Tariq.

Cookie nods and, just like that, he's horizontal, scampering up the wall, a blur of sneakers and pinwheeling braids, a kung fu movie sprung to life. Halfway up the bricks, he leans backward and kicks away from the wall. His feet are now skyward, his head down. He does a full rotation, then sticks the landing on his toes, all with barely a sound. He shrugs his shoulders, sits down and opens a textbook. A perfect back flip. Off a wall. In the middle of study hall.

"Damn, son," says Sterling. "You can fly, yo."

The players chuckle, but the amusement proves only momentary, and the jolt of electricity in the room is spent. It's back to obsessing.

Sterling's demeanor, in particular, has changed as the game nears. His emotions seemingly in constant flux, he's irritated one minute, laughing the next.

This game, he knows, will be a gauge of how successful the season will be, for the team and for him. He knows that his future, the possibility of college, depends on football. He doesn't want to end up waiting tables or something like that for the rest of his life. His mother keeps telling him that once he turns 18, he'll have to make it on his own. She knows that it will be almost impossible to afford college without a football scholarship.

Unfortunately, there's too much besides football going on this week. Tomorrow morning is senior inauguration, a ceremony celebrating the start of senior year. After that is a seniors-only dance. The dance, at least, will be fun, but that's not how Sterling would describe the tedium of the inauguration. Parents love the ceremony, but most of the football players see it as nothing more than a nuisance. Sterling is particularly annoyed about having to buy a new outfit for the occasion, although his mother says she'll reimburse him. But that just makes him feel guilty.

"GENTLEMEN."

A calm, no-nonsense voice fills the cafeteria.

"Let's get going. We need a good practice today. We've got a lot of work to get done and a lot of distractions to put aside."