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 acommunity. It can change lives and, with the promise of an athletic scholarship, provide an escape route from neighborhoods beset bycrime and poverty. It can instill confidence and a sense of belonging. It can bring together young men and use touchdowns and tacklesand fumbles to bond them for decades.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 strugglinginner-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 afternoonto 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. 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.
"TELL YOU WHAT: WHEN YOUR MAMA AND DADDY CALL ME AFTER THE SEASON ASKING WHY YOU AIN'T PLAYING COLLEGE BALL, I'M GONNA INVITE THEM UP HERE TO WATCH THIS TAPE! BECAUSE THIS IS SOME BUSH LEAGUE [EXPLETIVE] RIGHT HERE!"
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 playersfear 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 thisyear, with loads of talent returning on both sides, they have been eyeing each other for months. The winner will have a strong claimto 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 thedrugs 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 beable 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.
City College,the third-oldest public school in the country, has long been celebrated as a shining example of the best that urban educationoffers. It claims actors, judges, mayors, governors, congressmen, authors, even a Nobel Prize winner among its alumni. Statistically, Cityranks among the elite public schools in Maryland, and it is one of the top 200 high schools in the country, according to Newsweek. With an enrollment that is 90 percent African-American (1,240 out of 1,369 students), it is often pointed to as a model for urban education in the United States. Getting admitted requires outstanding grades and high test scores. According to the Maryland State Report Card, 87 percent of its students go on to attend four-year colleges. Even its castle-like campus on 33rd Street suggests the regal.
There's nothing majestic about Edmondson-Westside's boxy structure or its reputation. When Maryland politicians squabble over the issueof public schools, places such as Edmondson are often ignored because they represent neither the best nor the worst of what the city hasto offer. It is not an elite academic school, but it is not a poor one, either. It is not one of the city's notoriously troubled and violent neighborhood zone schools -- students must apply and pass a basic math and reading test to get in -- but it is not immune to violence. Last year, a student was shot in the school parking lot.
The lives of countless Edmondson families are torn apart by drugs, violence and poverty. Each month, it seems, there is another funeral forsomeone's friend or relative. But amid that desperation, a measure of hope survives.
Edmondson can point to passionate teachers and exceptional students, as well as some average teachers and its share of special-needs students. Though 93 percent of its seniors graduate, only 35 percent of those attend four-year colleges. Many students study a vocation, such as auto repair, cosmetology, carpentry or media production, and head directly into the work force or the military after taking off cap andgown. Athletic events such as Saturday's game are a chance for Edmondson players to prove to themselves that they are in no way inferior tothe kids at City College or anyone else. For some, including the handful of players who applied to City years ago and weren't accepted, this game is a chance for payback. A year ago,City beat Edmondson, 8-0, in the second-to-last game of the season, scoring the winning touchdown late in the game. The loss was the lowest point in a frustrating 4-6 season for the Red Storm.
In the video room, nervous energy fills the air, and it will build as the week proceeds.
Sitting on a desk, Sterling Jones, a strong safety who is one of Edmondson's most vocal and emotional players, cannot stop his legs fromtwitching. He crosses and uncrosses his arms. His fingernails are bitten down to the cuticle. This game -- and this entire season -- will likely determine his future, and he knows it. He needs a football scholarship to afford college. Without one, he's reluctant to imagine what willhappen next. For now, he doesn't want to think about it. He tries to focus on the video screen.
"Playing the line is not for the weak of heart, y'all," Walker mumbles. Then he explodes: "SO STEP UP AND BLOCK SOMEBODY!"
After watching a few more plays, he moves on to the cornerbacks.
"Dionta, you've got to take a proper angle, son! Look what happens when you try to make this tackle because you took a bad angle. If you undersized, and you trying to play at the next level, you damn sure better be a good tackler. You hear me?"
Dionta Cox -- an undersized cornerback -- nods. Never one of Edmondson's star players, he has developed into one of the team's most reliable in the past two years. Criticism never bothered him. As the nephew of the head coach, he has learned to take it in stride.
As Walker and Edmondson's players study the tape -- with Walker pausing and rewinding every 10 seconds -- another man, 30, slips intothe dark classroom from the empty hallway and pulls up a chair. He is tall and subdued. He has long dreadlocks, pulled into a ponytail, and a neatly trimmed beard. He leans over and whispers something to linebacker Kyle Jackson, one of the team leaders, whom the coaches call the Quiet Assassin. The two exchange warm smiles.
Walker continues his lecture, preaching proper pursuit angles, but most of the players can't resist stealing a glance at the man with thedreadlocks. As he watches the video, he folds his arms and nods in approval at the replay of a long run by one of Edmondson's runningbacks, Tariq Jones. Tariq, one of Edmondson's few Muslim students, is slumped over on his desk, tugging on his sideburns, deep in thought.
When the room gets rowdy after Sterling delivers a big hit on Douglass' quarterback, Edmondson's head coach breaks his silence for thefirst time.
"Gentlemen," says Dante Jones, barely raising his voice more than a few decibels. "Be respectful. Pay attention."
Five words and everyone is still.
Replacing a legend
Even legends get worn down. After the 2004 season, Pete Pompey was tired. His hair had turned silver years ago,and he now had as manywrinkles as he did memories. After 31 years of coaching high school football in Baltimore, his time had come to a satisfying and logical end. It was now up to Delphine Lee, Edmondson's principal, to find a worthy successor.
Which most people thought would be impossible.
Pompey wasn't just a legend at Edmondson; he was a legend in the city and beyond. Only four coaches in Maryland history had won moregames than Pompey when he retired, but it went deeper than his record. Politicians,businessmen, police officers, working professionals -- they all respected him because he had coached innercity boys, a bigger challenge than coaching in the affluence of the suburbs. He shaped the lives of so many of them.The men standing on street corners, the ones he'd tried to help but couldn't save, respected him, too, because he continued to reach out, never turning his back on them.
There would be no shortage of candidates. Before Pompey had made it official, Lee had begun to receive phone calls, bunches of them,some from as far away as New York.
What have you started? she teased him.
Lee understood the significance of her decision. While some principals tolerated athletics, Lee embraced them. Her husband, Earl Lee, hadcoached sports at Lake Clifton High for many years, so she knew how important the football players could be in shaping the student body.They helped maintain order. They instilled pride. They set examples, good and bad, that other kids followed. With so many forces on thestreets working against educators, picking the right coach, someone who would often be the dominant male figure in the lives of many ofthese students, was crucial. The coach couldn't care only about winning or his resume. Mostly, he had to care about the kids.
Pompey had a plan. No surprise there. He had been grooming one of his assistants, Dante Jones, for several years, letting him call the plays at first, then allowing him to run the team as Pompey stepped back a bit, ceding nearly all of his day-to-day responsibilities. Jones was humble and eager, and he was also, in Pompey's opinion, an intense listener, perhaps his greatest attribute. The players adored him and craved his praise. He had grown up in West Baltimore, attended Dunbar and played linebacker and wide receiver for one of the best teams in the city's history, winning a state title in 1994, the first ever by a Baltimore team.
Now, after playing in college at Delaware State, Jones had returned to Baltimore as a physical education teacher at Edmondson. He was determined not to abandon his city, to run from its troubles. Pompey had helped mold him, and now Jones felt that it was his turn to give back. Some players,he understood,just needed a hug, especially from a father figure. Already, he had big ideas of what he would do if he got the job.
Edmondson, he felt, was where he was supposed to be. He was a religious man, believed that every action had a purpose behind it. Andin his mind, God had a plan for him. This was where he would make a difference. He could save kids. People told him often he couldn't savethem all, and he knew it was true. But it would not stop him from trying. He had buried a player once. He vowed to never let it happen again.
Mandatory study hall
Before each game, Jones -- Coach 'Te to most of his players -- utters those two words, and, in an instant, rambunctious teenagers, some ofthem angry and defiant, become statues. Jones can be quick to laugh and tease, but there is a time when he makes it clear he is all business.
Lee recognized the dynamism in Jones right away, well before she took a chance, passing over older, more experienced applicants, andnamed him Edmondson's head coach at age 28. A veteran of the Baltimore school system for close to 30 years, Lee had spent the past seven as Edmondson's principal and had seen her share of idealistic coaches and teachers leave discouraged and disgruntled. Few educators impressed her as quickly as Jones did.
His first year at Edmondson, the school got itself into a scheduling and budget pinch and had to cram 50 kids into one period of physicaleducation. Lee told Jones she'd try to find a way to break the class in half as soon as she could, but Jones wouldn't hear of it.
"I'll handle them, Mrs. Lee," he told her. "I'll take all 50. Don't worry about it anymore. I'll be fine."
His first day, all 50 of his students were present and dressed, and soon he had them rotating around the gym, playing basketball, doing Tai Bo, performing calisthenics. Lee, watching from outside the gym doors, was stunned.
She recalled telling her husband that night, "You've got to come see this."
Plenty of high school coaches are screamers, using fear and the threat of discipline to maintain order. Sometimes it's effective. But it wasnot Jones' style. Instead, he became skilled at getting his point across in other ways. Raising his eyebrows. Maintaining eye contact for anextra second. Gently shaking his head. Instinctively, he understood the power of nonverbal communication.
He is handsome and graceful, and when he first roamed the hallways between classes he was hard to miss. He twirled his keys, bobbedhis head and ducked into rooms every few minutes, checking to see not only that his players were on time and had their homework ready,but also that they were sitting up front, setting an example for other students. His father had been a coach throughout his childhood -- baseball was his sport -- and so for Dante Jones, the coach's aura of authority appeared to come naturally.
He was the first to say that Pompey had left a structure in place, one built over decades. Players on the team were admired by youngerstudents,and teachers knew if they had a problem with a member of the football team, the football coach would deal with it. Right away.
But Jones wanted to take it further, wanted to start making progress in kids' lives from the moment they showed up at Edmondson, evenbefore he began coaching them on varsity. Too many of them began faltering academically right from their freshman year. They fell behind,failed to get help from tutors and dropped out of college prep courses. Before they ever reached varsity, their transcripts were beyondrepair and college was no longer a possibility.
Jones started simple. He needed to find a way to force kids to do their homework, and doing it at home simply wasn't working. By the timepractice was over, by the time they got dinner, then finished talking on the phone, homework was little more than an afterthought. So Jonesreversed the traditional order of things. Instead of practice right after school, his players -- whether they were freshmen, junior varsity orvarsity -- would attend mandatory study hall three days a week. Any player not attending could not be a member of the football team.
In study hall, Jones turned things over to Joyce Jenkins, an academic coach who had been assigned to Edmondson as part of Play ItSmart, a program funded by the National Football Foundation to help inner-city high schools with training and academic support. Jones considered Jenkins a part of his staff and directed his players to call her Coach Jenkins. She tutored them, taught them life skills, manners,time management and study habits. His players began to pass physics, not run from it.
At practice, with their homework taken care of, he'd run them. He'd send them up hills adjacent to the field, wait until they were physicallyexhausted, then make them run one more. By the time they'd get home from football, they were too tired to leave the house and cause mischief.
We're trying to eliminate their options, Jones told his assistants, most of whom, like him, had grown up in Baltimore.
Kids with options, they all understood, don't always make the right choices. And if they needed a reminder, all they had to do was look upand see the No. 7 jersey in Jones' office, hanging above his desk.
A grim reminder
Darryl Smith remains the smartest kid Jones has coached. By the end of his career in 2003, Smith, a quarterback, knew the offense betterthan anyone else, including Pompey. He'd call audibles, find his second or third receiver, come up with pinpoint throws under pressure thathelped cap fourth-quarter comebacks. He had guts. Instincts.He was, on the field, a leader and a winner. Colleges wanted Darryl Smith, andmost people thought he had the potential to be an excellent college quarterback or defensive back.He just didn't have the grades or test scores to get through the door.
"Kids don't understand sometimes," Jones says. "They're like, 'Coach,you need to relax.' But they don't realize that we have got to get them out of this city. I love Baltimore. But do you know why they call it the City of Crabs? Because it will pull you down if you allow it to. When you're 14, 15, 16 or 17 years old, you don't understand that. But I do."
Jones felt that if Darryl's grades and test scores had been high enough to get him into college, "he never would have ended up where he isnow."
Darryl was not fearless. And he was not foolish. But he was the kind of kid who would not, and could not, sleep unless he faced his fears.And that sometimes made him do reckless things.
Once, Jones recalled, right before a scrimmage against Mervo during his senior year in 2003, Darryl got off the bus and walked, alone, intoMervo's huddle until he came face to face with Chris Kane, one of the toughest, meanest linebackers in the city.
Jones thought Darryl and Chris might be friends, right up until Darryl reached back and cracked Chris right in the face mask, even thoughChris had a couple inches and maybe 30 pounds on him.
A fight broke out, and after Jones and several other coaches finally broke it up, Jones dragged Darryl aside and asked him what in the worldhad come over him.
"I was scared, Coach," Darryl told Jones. "I had to get it off my chest. Now I ain't scared no more."
It was an admirable, if dangerous, trait.
"If he feared something, he was going to face it," Jones says.
Morgan State offered Darryl a football scholarship on the condition that he raise his academic standing. He tried junior college but dropped out before long. Jones worried that Darryl might veer into trouble without the structure of college and football in his life. Darryl was not unmindful of the dangers. He had seven tombstones tattooed on his back, a tribute, he told people, to friends who had died violently.
Darryl was still living in Baltimore the night of Nov. 19, 2004, when, in the 2300 block of Sidney Ave. in the city's Westport neighborhood, someone -- Darryl would never tell Jones who it was -- shot him three times in the chest and once in the right arm. No one was ever arrested in the shooting, police say. For two months, Darryl lay in a hospital bed, at times fighting for his life. Doctors did what they could, but even intensive rehabilitation couldn't completely restore full movement to his right arm. He lived, but he would never play football again.Darryl, though, felt that his life might as well be over.
"Why did this have to happen to me?" Jones says Darryl asked him one day. The coach tried to give the best answer he could.
"I told him, 'Darryl, you've got to look at this and see that God is trying to open your eyes and make you understand, make you see omething,'"Jones says. "'He did it for a reason. He's trying to wake you up. You could have got shot in your left arm, but you wouldn't have understood.The reason you got shot in your right arm is so you can sit down and hear the message.'"
In the back of his mind, Jones thought that when he was named head coach, he would persuade Darryl to join him as an assistant, workingwith the quarterbacks. Maybe that would give Darryl the direction he needed.
On March 2, 2005, the two were speaking on the phone, as they occasionally did, when Darryl mentioned that he was going back to Westport. His girlfriend lived there, and he was going to see her. He assured Jones that he wasn't looking for revenge or trouble. He just wanted to get out of the house.
In a few hours, Darryl was dead, shot multiple times a block from where he was shot the first time. Police have never made an arrest in thecase and declined recently to comment on possible motives.
Jones felt as if he had lost a son. For months, he beat himself up for not doing more, for not being more aggressively involved in Darryl's life.
Darryl's No. 7 jersey, hanging over his desk, is a steady reminder of the temptations and the struggles his players face. Several kids still have the funeral program from Darryl's service taped up in their lockers. Numerous others pay tribute to fallen cousins and friends by writing messages on their cleats or on notebooks, telling loved ones to Rest In Peace. The locker room walls are covered with messages, written by current and former Edmondson players, begging that people with names such as Shorty or Mike-Mike not be forgotten.
"Sometimes you see kids coming to high school," Jones says, "and they've already lived the life of a 30-year-old,and they're just now 15."
Whatever kids are like 10, 20, even 30 years from now, Jones says, he'll be at Edmondson, figuring out a way to deal with it. He says he hasno aspirations to coach college football. No desire to go someplace with better facilities or more talent. This, to him, is home. He wants to be at Edmondson the day his son, Dante Jr., now age 3, walks through the door, nervous but excited, and puts on a red helmet for the first time.
The coach worries
In the dark classroom, the film session mercifully ends. Walker is still shaking his head as the lights come on,grumbling about the sloppy play.
"That kind of [EXPLETIVE] won't fly come Saturday!" he bellows." Anyone can get off one block. Even average players.We need you fighting offtwo and three blocks. ... I hope you listening!"
Dante Jones stands up. All eyes focus on him. The players revere him, but he can be difficult to please, and some of the players chafe underhis discipline.
"All right, gentlemen, we know what we need to do.We need to take care of our business and stay focused. We need to get our work done inthe weight room, on the field and in the classroom. This week is no different than any other week to us. Let's go make it happen. Take care ofour business and don't worry about any of that other stuff."
Privately, Jones worries plenty about that other stuff. Not just the hype surrounding this game, but whatever diverts the attention of teenageboys -- girls, music, grudges, the dance Friday. Anything. Everything.
In the hallway, on the way to the weight room, Edmondson's four team captains, Sterling, Kyle, Tariq and Dionta, make small talk. Sterling, the Red Storm's voluble strong safety, and Tariq, Edmondson's running back, pause outside the gym while Kyle and Dionta head downstairs to the weight room.
"I'm hungry,yo," Sterling says. "I'm hungry for this game, yo."
"Yo, for real," says Tariq, tugging on one of his sideburns, a habit of his when he's bored, tense or both.
"I'm ready to play this game right now, yo," Sterling says. "Right now."
Kickoff is five days away.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun