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.
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."
Dante Jones, Edmondson's second-year coach, looks around the room as the players gather up their homework. He, too, is concerned about all the events competing for his players' attention this week. The kids are losing focus, forgetting details they usually absorb, such as who is supposed to block the linebacker on the toss sweep to Tariq.
When Jones talks about focus, he has several things in mind. He knows that athletic excellence requires mental discipline as well as physical talent. He wants his players so prepared that they will recognize City's plays before they develop and react instantaneously. If City's offensive guard goes hard to his right at the snap, the Red Storm players must know that a sweep is coming. If their linebackers blitz, the quarterbacks has to throw to the tight end.
Such movements might look instinctive from the stands, but in reality they are the result of constant drilling and players endlessly imagining possible game-day situations. Jones can accept losses resulting from limitations of skill. The other team sometimes is just faster and stronger. What kills him, and most other coaches, is losing because of mental mistakes. A year ago, in Jones' first season as head coach, Edmondson went 4-6 and lost every close game because of such mental mistakes. Jones, having learned from that experience, has tried to devote even more attention this year to the cerebral aspects of preparation.
He knows City will be ready to play from the opening kickoff.
He's beginning to wonder whether Edmondson will be.
A lack of sharpness Two days to go.
"You all need to learn the plays, yo," Dajuan "Boo Boo" Smith says, admonishing two younger linemen after they tear off in the wrong direction on a running play. Boo Boo, the biggest jokester on the team, is getting fed up. At 5 feet 10, 260 pounds, he might be too small for many college scouts, but no Edmondson lineman has better technique. And no one gets as many "pancake blocks" as Boo Boo does.
In a game last season against Frederick County's Linganore High, he knocked so many defenders flat on their backs, "pancaking" them, that he briefly earned the nickname "Aunt Jemima."
Everything looks sloppy today. The quarterbacks - James "Buddy" Thorne, a senior, and Carroll Washington, a sophomore - are launching the ball all over the practice field, missing wide receivers and freezing under pressure. The coaching staff has rotated them in games during the season, trading Buddy's experience for Carroll's speed, but it's hard to trust either of them now. Jones is leaning toward starting Carroll, but without much conviction.
Buddy, serious and intense, looks great when he's playing well, but now he can't relax. He gets flustered, fails to set his feet and sails his throws high or into the turf. Carroll is erratic, unpredictable and exciting. His wiry right arm is a slingshot. He makes foolish mistakes and doesn't fully grasp the offense, but he's cocky and has fine football instincts. Every time he touches the ball, there's a sense that something amazing might happen - or something disastrous.
Edmondson's offensive coordinator, Dwayne Green, looks as if he's not sleeping well. He has tried to be patient, and he has tried yelling. Neither approach has produced the desired results. Even when the offense drills by itself rather than against the defense, it lacks sharpness.
"Relax, Buddy," Tariq says after a second straight pass sails over a receiver.
Tariq shakes his head, kicking a clump of dirt. He knows he's going to be carrying the ball plenty Saturday, but the passing game needs to step up, too.
"We're going up against air right now," Green growls. "Air. No one is covering us or nothing. You should be perfect against air. What does that tell you?"
Disgusted, Green sends out the second-team offense, ordering the starters to grab some water. If they make mistakes like this in the game, City's defense, touted as the best in Baltimore this year, will embarrass them. Most players seem unconcerned by Green's displeasure and spend the break laughing, wrestling and talking trash, but Buddy stands alone, off to the side. He scowls, squats, yanks grass from the field and stares off into the distance.
At the end of the two-hour practice, Dante Jones calls the team together.
"I know we've had a lot going on this week," he says. "I know you've all got senior inauguration tomorrow.
"That's no excuse. We need to be better."
Several players nod sheepishly.
Before he dismisses them, Jones reminds them to be at the school by 12:30 Saturday, even though the game won't start until 7. No exceptions. They will eat dinner together. They will think about the game, Jones says, and stay out of trouble.
"Coach 'Te," mumbles Ralph Todd, a wide receiver. The rest of the players are goofing around, walking back to the locker room. "Coach, I'm going to be late Saturday."
"Why's that?" Jones asks.
"My family going to the burial site for my cousin. The one that was killed. I'll come up to the school after it's over."
"Of course," Jones says, nodding. "Of course."
Difficult decisions "I don't even know why we need to have an inauguration," says Dionta Cox, a senior cornerback. He's sitting on a bench in the locker room, tying his shoes. Above him is a funeral program taped to the back of his locker door with white athletic tape. On the front is a color picture of a black teenager wearing a matching blue hat and shirt.
In Loving Memory, Darryl Lee Smith Jr., June 16, 1985 - March 2, 2005.
It's a senior portrait of Edmondson's former quarterback, taken a little more than a year before he was shot to death in Westport. His No. 7 jersey hangs above Dante Jones' desk.
"Really," Dionta says, "it's just so we can be seen by family. It's not like we don't already know we're seniors."
"Yo, I could be sitting home, playing Madden instead," Kyle says, closing his eyes and leaning against the wall.
The voice, even louder than usual, belongs to Sam Walker, Edmondson's assistant coach."I had some coaches calling me, asking about you."
Tariq peeks around the corner into the dingy hallway, eager to hear what comes next. "What did they say?" he asks.
"They were saying 'Tariq this, Tariq that,'" Walker says. "You know what I told them?"
Walker pauses. A full second passes.
"I said, 'Tariq Jones? He ain't [expletive],'" Walker says, a huge grin spreading across his wide face.
The locker room bursts into laughter, including Tariq. Walker strolls away, headed in the direction of Jones' office. The coaches will be there, watching game film of City, long after the players have gone home.
Difficult decisions loom, none bigger than who will start at quarterback.
But the players are free. They want to look good for tomorrow's dance. Several make a quick trip to the One Love Barber Shop, then to K & G Fashion Superstore. Afterward, Sterling, Buddy and Cookie spend the evening with lineman Jerome Baskerville in his grandmother's basement. They eat hot dogs and watch tape of last year's game against City on a big-screen TV.
Sterling has the remote control. Every few seconds, he hits the rewind, watching plays six, seven times before moving on. City has been running the same offense for three decades, and he's going to sear it into his brain until it's second nature. He's exhausted. But he can't take his eyes off the screen.
Heading for the dance It's Friday morning, and cameras are flashing. Mothers are crying. Local news anchor Vic Carter, the guest speaker for Edmondson's senior inauguration, reads aloud from what he says is his favorite book, The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton. It's a classic children's story about slaves who use magic to escape from the plantation. Many in the audience seem riveted. Most of Edmondson's football players, scattered among the students, look bored.
Finally, the hourlong ceremony ends, and students spill out of the auditorium. Sterling doesn't wait for the reviews of his new outfit, a white shirt with a light-blue pants that match his tie.
"Man, I look sexy as hell in this shirt don't I?" he says, winking at a passing group of girls.
Soon, the players are aboard a yellow school bus rumbling down Hammonds Ferry Road in southern Baltimore County. Tariq stares out the window.
It is obvious to everyone that the bus driver is lost. He's supposed to be taking part of the senior class to a banquet hall in Lansdowne for the dance, but already he has had to turn around once and retrace the route.
The passengers - teenagers in silk ties, freshly ironed shirts and bright, beautiful blouses and sundresses - are restless. They are loud, abusive and tired, and they want off this bus. The driver slows, preparing to double back again, which leads to another storm of gripes and curses from the kids. When it dies down, Tariq, sitting next to Sterling in the second-to-last seat of the bus, speaks in a hushed voice, almost without emotion.
"One of my people was killed last night, yo."
The words don't register for a moment.
"For real?" says Kyle from across the aisle.
"Yo, hold up, who died?" Sterling asks, his voice rising.
"The imam at my mosque - his son," Tariq says. "Got killed on his motorcycle when he got hit by a car. I guess he wasn't wearing a helmet or something."
"Damn," Sterling says.
"Yeah," Tariq says, staring straight ahead. "It's like the seventh person close to me I've lost since last summer."
Kyle and Sterling do not say anything. Last summer, Kareem Damon, one of Edmondson's starting wide receivers, lost his older brother, Talib, in a shooting. Tariq, who lives near Kareem, remembers hearing the gunshots that night. Two summers ago, one of Kyle's childhood friends was killed in a car accident after an alleged robbery.
"It is what it is, I guess," Tariq says, ending the conversation. A Muslim proverb keeps drifting in and out of his thoughts for much of the day, though.
Na illahee wa inna ilayhee rajioon.
From God we came and to God we return.
The talk soon returns to football. The bus driver is still lost.
"Yesterday's practice was shady, yo," Sterling says. They have to do better at this afternoon's practice, he says.
"Definitely," Kyle says.
"The coaches be riding us pretty good this week," Sterling says. "I just don't know if some people be focused enough."
"I just hope they keep getting us hyped up, so we start thinking we playing some monsters," Tariq says.
"I feel like a businessman, yo," says Kyle, adjusting his tie. White athletic socks peek out from under his black dress pants whenever he stretches.
The bus slows. The kids groan as the driver pulls into a church parking lot to once again turn back in the opposite direction.
"Man, what the [expletive]?" yells a female student. "Get off your dumb [expletive] and find out where them other buses are at!"
Tariq puts his head against the seat in front of him. He's tired of all the noise and nonsense. Ever since this morning, it has been nothing but whooping and hollering, clapping and screaming. He'd prefer to sit for a while and think.
Sterling's pep talk Minutes after the buses finally arrive at the reception hall about noon, the dance floor is a tightly packed jumble of limbs, hips and torsos. Teenagers grind, bump and twist to the continuous thump of a booming bass line.
The City game floats out of their consciousness as girls float in.
Dionta Cox, a cornerback and a nephew of Edmondson's head coach, is in the middle of the scrum, grooving and singing along to R. Kelly. He's wearing white patent-leather shoes, light-blue pants, a white tie and an unbuttoned white polo shirt. The senior girls are mesmerized. One of them reaches out, giggles and stuffs a dollar bill into the collar of his undershirt.
Sterling climbs onto a chair, removes his blue necktie and whips it around his head like a helicopter blade. The gravelly voice of rapper 50 Cent booms out of the speakers.
"We getting krunk in here, yo!" Sterling shouts.
Hands in the air, guys and girls dance while cameras flash. Every few minutes, the girls pass around a tiny mirror and check their makeup. Jerome and Boo Boo Smith, two giants in a tight space, bounce around the dance floor, goofy and graceless.
Even Tariq joins in, pumping his fist, high-fiving friends, laughing at the wild scene. For the most part, he lingers near the edge of the dance floor with his best friend, Jasmine, a shy senior with a flawless complexion and pretty eyes. She's his best friend, he says, one of the few people he can talk to about anything.
Only Kyle and Buddy refuse to take part, staging a silent protest by planting themselves in two seats.
After a few hours and a few hundred songs, everyone is drained. Sterling, sits in a chair away from the dance floor, staring at nothing, thinking about the game. His girlfriend, LaQuisha, rests her head against his shoulder.
As the dance ends, he springs back to life. He asks the DJ if he can borrow the microphone.
"You all need to come check us out tomorrow night at Poly," Sterling shouts. "Come see us whip up on City under the lights. It's only $5 to get in!"
'No time for laughing' Dante Jones knew his players would have trouble focusing after the dance. But he couldn't cancel practice one day before the biggest game of the season.
The practice later that afternoon drags. The boys seem incapable of concentrating. Dante orders a defensive end to run hills for half an hour after he curses during a drill. Sterling keeps flexing his knee, wincing in pain. The players are sick of hitting one another. They want to knock heads with City.
"Why you always taking me out?" Alston Williams, a senior wide receiver and punt returner, snaps at the coaches. "I keep making big plays, and you keep taking me out."
He rips off his helmet and storms off the field, fighting back tears. The coaches ignore him, but Kyle walks to the fence surrounding the field and puts his arm around Alston.
"I know how mad you is right now," Kyle says. "You got a vein coming out your forehead. But you can't be like that, yo."
But even Kyle has trouble maintaining focus. During drills and scrimmages, he is his typical, steady self, but late in practice, standing on the sideline, he gets involved in a discussion about his ex-girlfriend when he should be paying attention.
Dwayne Green, Edmondson's offensive coordinator pulls his two quarterbacks, Buddy Thorne and Carroll Washington, away from the rest of the team after he catches them goofing off. The coaching staff is still struggling with who should start.
"You've got to be better," Green says in measured tones. At 6 feet 5, he towers over both of them. "This ain't no time for laughing. You've both made some good things happen. I'm not taking that away from you. But let's take the next step. I don't ever want to see you making excuses. Anything goes wrong on offense, I want you to own it, you hear me?"
Outside the locker room, Coach Jones picks up trash and sweeps the floor. His face is grim.
"I'm glad we didn't play this game today," he says.
Other coaches might bench starters, force the whole team to run hills until they vomit and give a rousing pre-game speech in the locker room. But at some point, Jones feels, the onus is on his players. He can't make tackles for them, block or catch passes. That's one of the lessons he has been trying to teach. You have to take responsibility for your actions, whether it's at your job, in class or on the field.
Those lessons had been passed down to him by Pete Pompey, his former coach and mentor, and by his father, a longtime baseball coach in Baltimore's recreation leagues. When the lights come on, when it is time to come charging out of the tunnel and onto the field, it is up to the players. He can drill them over and over again, but other than call plays and make substitutions, there is little he can do once the game begins. It's up to them.
It is 6:54 p.m. Friday. Jones and his staff will stay late, scheming and preparing, analyzing game tapes of City with the intensity of forensic scientists looking for clues. Jones' gut tells him the game will be a toss-up. He believes in his team. It has talent at every position, and he believes the players have it in them to be great, the best in Edmondson's history.
But the players have to prove they can respond when faced with adversity. Win or lose, the rest of the season - and much else, he believes - depends on it.
Coming tomorrowPart 5 // The stage is finally set for the showdown between Edmondson-Westside and City College.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun