Before each Howard High home football game, Louis Matthews, wearing uniform No. 81, kneels by a light pole on the field and prays.
Louis and his mother, Jolinda, have done a lot of praying at Asbury United Methodist Church over the past few years, and their entreaties seem to have been answered.
Because Louis, a senior at Gateway School, an alternative school for students who were not successful in their home schools, not only has solved his academic and behavioral problems, he has become a prominent member of Howard's undefeated football team and wants to attend college.
The 6-foot-2, 207-pound senior defensive end leads the team with 10 quarterback sacks and has quickly become so respected that most teams run their plays away from him.
"Sports has been a high motivation for him," said his mother. "He worked hard on his grades to become eligible to play sports, and he wants to stay focused and be positive and stay out of trouble. Football has taken him to a different height, pumped him up and built his character up.
"I'm just so happy, I'm glowing," his mother said. "Gateway has done a good job working hard with him and me to see that he succeeded and moved on. Gateway has made him feel safe, and that's what he needed. He wouldn't have made it to 12th grade, if not for Gateway."
Diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, Louis was sent to Gateway at the start of his middle-school years and has continued there for all but one brief, unsuccessful stay at Howard.
Because he lives in Jessup, within the Howard school district, he can participate in its sports program, provided he meets academic criteria, a 2.0 grade-point average with no failing grades.
Matthews said he carries a 3.7 GPA at Gateway, which provides smaller class sizes and shorter classes than Howard, where students have four 90-minute classes daily.
Matthews' athletic career at Howard began last winter, when he played varsity basketball.
"Students who are most successful at Gateway are those who set a goal," said Frank Eastham, principal at the Clarksville school, which began in 1982 and has 100 students. "Basketball was a goal for Louis, and he's shown leadership and maturity this year."
"Gateway has really helped me out a lot," Louis said. "I gave them some problems at first, but then I matured and now want to be a positive role model to benefit myself and others. My one regret was messing up in school."
Greg Harrell, a Howard assistant coach and substitute teacher at Gateway, convinced Matthews to play football this fall.
"I never knew it could be like this," Matthews said. "It's so much fun. The team is so pumped up and Joey [Tortella] keeps us happy."
"Joey Tortella is his hero," Mrs. Matthews said, referring to Howard's defensive captain and, at middle linebacker, the Lions' leading tackler. "He's always talking about him."
Howard football coach Vince Parnell said he didn't know what to expect from Matthews.
"We had seen him play basketball and knew he wasn't going to be intimidated by anyone, and I liked that spirit. He has a lot of natural talent," Parnell said. "He could be one of those late starters who blossoms and is playing in the pros years from now."
Howard had one late bloomer who made it to the pros and earned a Super Bowl ring -- Wayne Wilson, a member of the undefeated 1974 state championship football team. He started out as the team's water boy in elementary school but saw a lot of time at running back only in his senior year, after he started growing.
Wilson moved on to Shepherd College, where he was predominantly a blocking back, and then the pros. Wilson now helps coach at Glenelg and was part of Howard's 25th anniversary state championship celebration last Saturday.
Matthews attended a football camp at Salisbury State last summer to prepare himself for this season. He also attended two basketball camps, Five-Star in Pittsburgh and one at Washington College in Chestertown.
Parnell thinks Matthews could be a strong blocker as a fullback, and that Louis is anxious and hungry to take on more than just a defensive role.
"People who do their offensive game plan have to account for Louis," Parnell said. "He's one of the better athletes on the team. He's a great kid -- enthusiastic, does everything we ask. He's been tremendous for us."
And if Howard should remain undefeated and win its second state title this season?
"I'd probably cry," said Louis.
Pub Date: 10/08/99