Next week, millions will tune in to the Super Bowl, attracted as much by an athletic contest as a spectacle saturated with glitz, glamour and excess.

High school football is something strikingly different. Its stars are not supermen but teenagers with imperfect talents and loads of vulnerability.

In Baltimore, on uneven fields often bracketed by rusty metal bleachers, a high school football game can reflect the aspirations of a community. It can change lives and, with the promise of an athletic scholarship, provide an escape route from neighborhoods beset by crime and poverty. It can instill confidence and a sense of belonging. It can bring together young men and use touchdowns and tackles and fumbles to bond them for decades.

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On a cool September evening in 2006, the Edmondson-Westside Red Storm played that kind of football game against rival City College. The clash was a chance for Edmondson to prove itself against a traditional athletic and academic power. It was an opportunity to seek revenge for a loss the previous year and begin building an unforgettable season. It was a chance to make a statement, that a struggling inner-city school like Edmondson could hold its own against the best.

Edmondson's charismatic young coach, on a mission to steer kids away from the dangerous city streets, had from Monday afternoon to Saturday night to get his team ready. Six days to keep 35 male teenagers from being distracted by girls, music, cars and a thousand other diversions. Six days to stay focused and united.

Six days to prepare for a game with much at stake.

Chapter 1: A game of contrasts
We begin with the image of a dark high school classroom, and 35 stone-faced teenage boys fidgeting in their seats, their eyes fixed on the blue glow of a television. A football game, recorded in the rain with a shaky, hand-held camera, fills the screen. Up front, squatting in his chair, a 38-year-old man with a large belly and a scowl on his face holds a remote in his right hand. His large, brown eyes burn with anger. When he speaks, his South Carolina accent echoes off the classroom's concrete walls, so loud, at times, it sounds like a hammer striking metal. œ It's Monday afternoon at Edmondson-Westside High School in Baltimore. And this week in mid-September, just like every week, young men's lives are at stake.

"THIS IS THE KIND OF [EXPLETIVE] I'M TALKING ABOUT!" the man in the chair barks, thrusting a meaty finger in the direction of the television. His voice climbs an octave in frustration."RIGHT HERE! THIS [EXPLETIVE]! WE TEACH YOU TECHNIQUE, AND YOU DON'T USE THE DAMN TECHNIQUE!"

He pauses, almost daring the players to contradict him.


The voice -- which ranges from booming baritone to squeaky alto, depending on his excitement level -- belongs to Sam Walker, one of Edmondson's assistant football coaches. His nickname, rarely spoken aloud and never to his face, is "The Beast." The Edmondson players fear him and respect what he has to say, but in a few moments, they're muttering and laughing once more, regardless of how often he yells.

Each Monday, it falls to Walker to break down and analyze film of Edmondson's previous game. The more he sees of the Red Storm's game against Frederick Douglass, the more disgusted he gets. From his reaction, it would be hard to divine that Edmondson obliterated Douglass, 28-0. But all Walker sees now are the miscues. Missed tackles. Poor blocking. Lack of focus. For an old-school coach, it's maddening. And this week -- especially this week -- he will not stand for a repeat performance, not from a group with this much promise. After two years of hard work, the boys in this room have the potential to be the best team in school history. And Walker is not going to leave a single curse word unstated to make certain that they reach their potential.

In five days, Edmondson will play a football game that will determine the path of its season. Both Edmondson and City College are undefeated, and they will square off beneath the lights in front of a sold-out crowd. The two schools are not exactly arch-rivals, but this year, with loads of talent returning on both sides, they have been eyeing each other for months. The winner will have a strong claim to calling itself the best public school team in Baltimore, with a good chance at an undefeated season. But the game has a larger meaning, too, as high school football games sometimes do.

The game will reveal whether the Red Storm players are really as good as they've been telling themselves. And that answer might start to tell them something about how far football might take them in their lives. Can it provide a pathway to college educations and a toehold in the middle class? Can it become a career in itself? Can it, at a minimum, instill in these players a discipline that will enable them to avoid the drugs and violence that consume so many of the young in this city?

Or maybe Saturday's game is destined to become nothing more than a memory of old men, an ephemeral moment of glory or heartache when they shared a common purpose and intense friendship.

For months, people who follow high school football in the city have been buzzing -- in barbershops,on street corners,in churches -- eagerly anticipating this matchup, declaring, without hesitation, that these are the two best teams in the city. In its season opener Sept. 9, Edmondson rallied from a two touchdown deficit to upset Linganore, a four-time state champion from Frederick County, 24-19. City, perennially one of Baltimore's best teams, appears to have its stingiest defense in years. In their first two games, the Knights beat Lake Clifton and Forest Park by a combined score of 72-0.

An enormous amount of pride is also at stake. Regardless of what happens next year, one of these two senior classes will always be able to boast about the outcome of this game, needling friends and enemies on the losing side decades from now.

And, though it is mostly unspoken, a majority of Edmondson's players admit that this game has an added dose of tension. It's not hatred or disrespect. Plenty of Edmondson's players grew up and played Pop Warner football with students who now attend City College. A few friendships have been sustained. But the game is not between any two schools, but two schools that occupy different tiers in the Baltimore educational hierarchy.