It was on a pleasant midsummer's night -- July 27, 1991, to be exact -- that Maryland high school football may have come fully of age.
That was the night a team of Maryland's graduated seniors beat Pennsylvania's best for just the second time in seven tries, 17-9, in the annual Big 33 game in Hershey, Pa.
And it wasn't a fluke.
It was the biggest, fastest, most athletic Maryland team ever, with the most Division I scholarship players within memory, many from the Baltimore area. And that win, watched by nearly every coach and player in the state within reach of a television set, was a true benchmark, a measure of the overall quality of football in this state.
But Maryland is hardly a Texas, Florida, Ohio or Pennsylvania when it comes to producing large numbers of talented football players. And, dominated by two large metropolitan areas, even the culture of small-town football madness is hard to find.
So how did football escape the long shadows of basketball and (( lacrosse? The answer is multi-faceted.
"One reason is the Big 33 game was a catalyst in the state taking steps forward in football," said coach Doug DuVall of Wilde Lake, who coached the Maryland team this summer. "The state was so divided geographically with two metropolitan areas, the mountains and the Eastern Shore, that it was hard to get coaches together. That caused the coaches to form the Maryland State Football Coaches Association.
"Coaches shared knowledge and experience. That impacts on how kids are taught. There are more clinics and more notoriety for kids."
Chesapeake-BC's Ken Johnson, an assistant coach on this year's Big 33 team, said, "Our training and practices are better . . . We're more thorough in our preparations. These summer passing leagues that are popping up -- Pennsylvania's been doing that for years. There are more kids going to summer camps."
Many schools have purchased weight equipment. Even in small amounts, "$700 or $800," at Forest Park said coach Obie Barnes, it is not money wasted.
"Kids are getting bigger because they realize weight training is a part of football," said Brent Guyton, Wilde Lake's highly recruited 6-foot-2, 218-pound senior linebacker. "It lowers injuries, makes you stronger and makes you a better athlete."
And area schools are seeking out the toughest opponents they can find. For example, Poly, from the MSA A Conference, regularly scrimmages DeMatha, nationally ranked last year. Poly also traveled to Cumberland to play Allegany last season. Forest Park scrimmaged state 4A champ Randallstown last week, and North County scrimmaged Washington-area powers Springbrook and McNamara.
"There have always been strong teams in Maryland," said Poly coach Augie Waibel. "Now there are more due to the state playoffs. The MSA doesn't have that, but we have good competition."
The players, of course, are the ultimate beneficiaries. John Jennings of Severna Park is a 5-7, 225-pound running back who runs the 40 in 4.6 seconds, has bench-pressed 300 pounds and has a vertical leap of 34 inches. He's one of this year's top prospects.
"Some of those players, we played against," he said, referring to last year's Big 33 team. "It shows that nothing is out of reach."
The coaches believe that winning begets winners. "I don't think anything can motivate kids more than seeing success and realizing they can have it, too," DuVall said.
Success at the high school level is measured not just in trophies, but in scholarships. Last year's seniors on Wilde Lake's state 2A champions earned, according to DuVall, scholarships worth more than $500,000 over four years. They weren't all for Division I athletics; some were based on need. Of course, need cuts both ways. If Princeton and Johns Hopkins happened to need deserving students with state championship football experience, a match could be made with Wilde Lake's Oba McMillan and Len Cotter, respectively.
Coaches are working to get more athletic scholarships for Maryland players. "We send out a blue-chip list to a computerized list that goes to all the colleges," Waibel said. "That never happened before in our state."
At the end of the season, coaches submit videotapes of outstanding players to the state coaches association. "We rent four or five motel rooms near College Park," said Waibel. "College coaches come and pay a nominal fee to cover our expenses and watch tapes all day."
And there are plans to do more to make recruiters more aware of Maryland talent. "After this year we'll have a better handle on it," DuVall said. "This spring we're going to run a statewide combine for rising juniors."
TTC The players are aware of the benefits. Cardinal Gibbons senior Eugene Marshall, one of the area's top backs, depends on his blockers. "The bigger guys work harder in practice," he said. "They never complain. The college coaches see who threw the block. A lot of recruiters see Maryland has players now."
Can this year's crop of seniors duplicate what last year's accomplished? Because college recruiters are fickle, it's too early to say. A 6-4, 245-pound lineman will get more scholarship consideration than a 6-1 player of the same weight and skill.
"In the spring, several college scouts came through and said it was a dry year in Maryland," Forest Park's Barnes said of the 1991 season. "I don't accept that. I don't see as many big linemen but they may be there."
Naturally, the players would like to continue Maryland's ascent. At Gilman, which sent three players to Division I last year, 205-pound linebacker Victor Carter-Bey said, "We all talk about how successful John Tyler [North Carolina], Keith Kormanik [Boston College] and Jamal Cox [Georgia Tech] were. It's pressure, but it's good pressure."
The ultimate honor now is selection to the Big 33 team, but it wasn't always that way. Waibel, who coached the state's first team in 1985, said 18 of the top 33 selectees that year declined to participate. Maryland lost. But times have changed.
"I set that as a goal for myself -- to make it and be able to contribute in the game," said Wilde Lake's Guyton. "When Maryland won, it was a victory for everyone who plays football in Maryland. A victory for the whole state."