For the first time in their high school football careers, McDonogh seniors Wyatt Cook and Ellis McKennie will play at home under the lights Friday night, and they couldn't be more thrilled.


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"I always wondered what it would be like to be under the lights on Friday night with your team, your fans, your school," Cook said. "High school football and Friday night lights, they just go together and it finally happened our senior year. To actually play at home under the lights donated by an alumni, it's surreal and I can't wait."

Cook and McKennie have played night games at schools such as Calvert Hall and Archbishop Spalding, but they're eager to play under their new lights before the home crowd, which they expect to be larger on Friday nights than Saturday afternoons.

"It's the intensity," McKennie said. "More people can make it on Friday nights to make the atmosphere that much more exciting. I feel like high school football is meant to be played on Friday nights, so now we've got the lights to complete the whole package of the high school experience."

Former Eagle wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey would agree with that. Heyward-Bey donated the money for the lights, making good on a pledge he made to McDonogh athletic director Mickey Deegan during his senior year in 2005. He will make a brief trip from Pittsburgh, where he's now a wide receiver for the Steelers, to join in Friday night's festivities.

"Without Darrius's gift we would never have the lights," Deegan said, "and for him to be here for the first Friday night football game, which was a dream of his since he played high school, this is awesome."

Heyward-Bey always wanted to play Friday night football at McDonogh, but he never had the chance. He said in a statement in April when the lighting project was announced that he wanted to make that dream come true for the current Eagles, who take the field Friday night as the reigning Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference champs and The Baltimore Sun's No. 1 team.

"On every level, night games are exciting," he said. "Young players dream of playing under the lights, but the reality is that 95 percent of athletes don't play after high school. I'm glad McDonogh football players will now have that opportunity."

Deegan vividly remembers the day Heyward-Bey walked up to her on the football sideline, put his arm around her and asked why the McDonogh stadium field did not have lights.

"I said, 'Well Darrius, lights are really expensive and it takes a special gift to make that kind of reality come true," Deegan said. "And he said, 'When I make it big, when I make it to the pros, I'm going to buy you some lights.' I said, 'Well Darrius, that's very sweet of you.'

"I thought that would be wonderful if it ever came to fruition and darned if he didn't make good on his promise. That's the whole beauty of what he promised -- he promised his high school that he would do that and he's been a man of his word."

Cook, a linebacker who was last season's All-Metro Defensive Player of the Year, and McKennie, one of the area's top offensive linemen, aren't among the 95 percent of players Heyward-Bey mentioned. Both are committed to play in college -- Cook at Purdue and McKennie at Maryland, but they're as excited as anyone.

Cook said he grew up watching high school football near his home in Carroll County and dreaming of playing under the lights. He watched his brother Wes Cook play at Winters Mill, where the Falcons played every game on Friday nights.

"Growing up, that's all you really hear about: 'Friday night lights, playing football under the lights, can't wait,'" Cook said. "As a little kid going to the games, you can't wait for that. For the past three years, we've played on Saturday and now, it's finally happened for our senior year to actually play at home under the lights donated by an alumni."

Deegan, Cook and McKennie said there's a buzz around school about the lights and they hope for a big crowd Friday night when coach Dom Damico's Eagles, who have won 12 straight games, face one of their toughest opponents of the season. St. Joseph Regional, the second-ranked team in New Jersey by MaxPreps.

"Everyone’s excited. The teachers are excited," Cook said. "I'll be walking through the hallways and people will be asking me if I'm ready for the Friday night lights. I’m ready, but it’s exciting that other people are so excited and how big of a deal it’s going to be for our community."

Prior to the game, Deegan said the field will be dedicated with headmaster Charles Britton saying a few words. Former headmaster Bo Dixon, who was there when Heyward-Bey played, will also likely be on hand.

As for Saturday afternoons, how will Cook and McKennie spend that time?

Watching college football, of course.

katherine.dunn@baltsun.com

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