The Wilde Lake High School football players cram side by side on the stairs of a shadowy hallway, awaiting final instructions from their coaches about a half-hour before their season opener against Bel Air.
Doug DuVall recites a speech that he has probably used to start each of his previous 27 seasons, reeling off a series of cliches about his players being soldiers headed into battle. The players seem unmoved, most just staring at the floor rather than looking at their coach.
But then his words grab them.
"Look at the person sitting next to you," DuVall says, and his players' heads spring up. "It doesn't matter what color your skin is if you're rich or poor or whether you're Jewish, Catholic or Muslim."
All eyes are on him now. "No matter what happens out there, you'll always take the pride of playing alongside each other. You'll leave with mutual respect that you'll have for the rest of your lives.
"So look into their eyes and see the confidence of a champion."
DuVall has instilled plenty of that confidence. The Wildecats are the Baltimore area's most successful public school football program this decade, with four state championships.
Their high school is Columbia's oldest, and a prototypical American melting pot, representative of the diversity that was part of the original vision for the community. It's far from being a Howard County utopia of higher learning, with a recent past that includes disciplinary turmoil and academic underperformance.
Nevertheless, the Wildecats football team has remained a constant source of pride, and the team represents a snapshot of racial and cultural cohesion.
Just scan the diverse racial landscape of the team. About half of the team is African-American, the other half mostly white. The roster also includes Asian and Hispanic players and six from interracial families. It's a mix roughly comparable to the racial makeup of the high school, which is 60 percent white and about 30 percent African-American.
Scratch the surface even more and there lies another division -- economic backgrounds that cover a wide spectrum. Some players' parents barely make above minimum wage; others' parents are doctors.
"Some kids I would never have known or talked to if I weren't here," said quarterback Chad Fawcett, who is white. "They'd be wallpaper to me. On the team, you still feel a bond, a brotherhood, a family."
The rock, the hill
Every time the Wildecats step into their stadium, each player pats a 4-foot-high, triangular rock. No player forgets to touch that light brown stone.
Asked about its significance, assistant coach Felix Smith found himself stumped. He questioned a player walking by about the rock.
"I don't know why," the player said with a shrug. "It's just tradition."
It doesn't require a meaning. It doesn't need a purpose. Traditions at Wilde Lake are part of what binds its array of players.
If anyone needs a reason, the coaches can point to five overall state championships, 16 Howard County titles and the current 30-game county winning streak. Enough said. (The Wildecats appear ready to continue their success. They opened the season with a 33-6 victory over Bel Air Saturday.)
So when the coaches ask the players to line up, the Wildecats file out of the locker room by twos, hitting a metal board that reads: "Every player, every play." And when they do pushups, the players join in a bunched circle, with shoulder pad touching shoulder pad.
Nothing, however, compares to running the hill after practice on Tuesdays. The Wildecats charge up the incline on the one end of the practice field, return and make a u-turn to do it again -- up to 10 times.
"To be the best, we have to outwork the rest," assistant coach Mike Harrison yelled out to the players. "It's like putting money in the bank. On Saturday when you're feeling tired, you can reach back and take it back."
After the fourth trip up the hill, Harrison tells the Wildecats to stop. Knowing the drill, the players drop to the ground with their heads facing down the hill and prepare to do 13 pushups.
"Do you know why we do 13?" said Harrison, who also played under DuVall at Wilde Lake. "Because the 13th game is the state championship. And we don't stop until we win that game."
If the Wildecats produce a highlight film of the season, it should have an outtake section. At Wilde Lake, the unofficial motto should be: a team that laughs together, wins together.
Go back to the third practice of the season, when the Wildecats first fielded their punt return team. On a planned handoff for a reverse, Mario Merrills and Curtis Gore ran head-on into each other, a collision that caused some teammates to double over in laughter.
"I think that's the first tackle of 1999," Harrison said at the time, drawing more laughter from coaches and players.
Sometimes when black and white teammates laugh at each other's expense, it has nothing to do with football. During practice after the first day of school, for instance, Fawcett noticed right guard Emanuel Glover, a black player who is also known as Big E, staring at a girl.
"That's Big E's dream girl," said Fawcett, calling his teammates' attention to the black girl talking on a cell phone.
At the first break, Fawcett coaxed Glover to walk over her way, heading toward the girl himself and waving Glover along as a cluster of teammates watched. As Fawcett and Glover approached, the girl immediately turned her back. Their teammates delighted in Glover's rejection, laughing loudly.
"Nice try, guys," said several black and white players in unison as Fawcett and Glover, wearing sheepish smiles, shuffled away.
Every Monday, the players hang out at Bill Bateman's Restaurant after practice. They sit around for hours, chatting about school, football and, of course, girls.
Other times, the Wildecats exhibit their closeness without words.
When practice ended with a watermelon feast two weeks ago, Glover, who is 6 feet 4, 304 pounds, carried teammates over to the benches. Back in the locker room, players grab cups of water for each other without being asked.
This conduct may seem straightforward, but the gestures don't go unnoticed.
"This is the best group of guys I think we've had," assistant coach Stu Sklar said to DuVall. "We don't have a single ego here."
At Wilde Lake, the football players don't seem to pay attention to each others' skin color or whether their families are rich or poor. The only thing that matters is: Make sure you're a Wildecat.
"Maybe the future will be like this," said DuVall, who hasn't had a racial incident occur on his football team since his first day as coach in 1972. "And why can't it be?"
Pub Date: 9/09/99