One by one, the Wilde Lake High School football players reach for a small metal sign, thumping and thwacking it as they file toward the stadium.
They understand the message on the dented green sign, written in yellow lettering. It reads: "Every Player, Every Play."
Although it's an age-worn saying passed down for years in this Columbia football program, this season's Wildecats personify these words, shaping a team that is light on egos and superstars but strong on character.
Historically, Wilde Lake has based its identity on the skills of a couple of standouts. Not since the program's 1985 state championship team has a Wildecats team relied on so many role players with so many critical roles. In many ways, this team is greater than the sum of its parts.
Weakened by the loss of over half its lettermen, including six first-team All-Howard County performers, this year's squad has scratched to uphold one of the area's strongest traditions. Wilde Lake (7-1) must beat Glenelg and Mount Hebron in its final two games to have a chance at making the Class 3A state playoffs.
Over the past five weeks, the Wildecats have won four games by margins of a touchdown or less. Twice, the victories came at home on the last play in overtime. Luck was a factor against River Hill, which missed a game-tying extra-point attempt. Against Oakland Mills, determination paid off in a broken-tackle run for the touchdown.
The dramatics have seemed to strengthen the tight bond among teammates. Players have prayed together before games. They have jubilantly piled on top of each other in the end zone after the two overtime victories. They have embraced after emotional wins.
"They are a bunch of good players who play extraordinarily together," coach Doug DuVall said. "Individually, I don't have a great player. But what makes this team special is that they epitomize team."
Of the 43 players, consider four who lift the Wildecats from marquee positions and less-obvious spots:
Senior quarterback Chad Fawcett has asserted himself as a leader, learning how to give direction and focus in his first and only season as a varsity starter.
Junior running back Mario Merrills delivers a calming influence with his spirituality while displaying on the field why he is Wilde Lake's top Division I prospect.
Senior punter Nyema Wilson provides the comic relief during practices but views football as his steppingstone into college.
And junior reserve Comer Norwood manages to squeeze time as a member of the practice squad in between school, a part-time job and his household chores, knowing his chance to start is still a year away.
Chad Fawcett had the solid resume of a team captain, having played point guard for the basketball team along with being named editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. Still, the senior quarterback, known for having one of the strongest arms in the county, had never started a varsity game. His season began as his first pass of the year was intercepted by Calvert Hall in a scrimmage.
During the first two weeks of practice, offensive coordinator Scott Swope had to continually tell Fawcett to speak up in huddles. DuVall also took him aside, directing him to motivate certain players during practice.
"It was weird to come out and tell kids, who last year never paid no attention to me, what to do," said Fawcett, who is 6 feet 2, 182 pounds. "Then if they don't do it right, I got to talk to them."
During the first two games, Fawcett knelt on the sideline when the Wilde Lake defense was on the field, 5 yards away from the nearest teammate. He watched quietly and showed little emotion.
But on Sept. 18, Wilde Lake and Fawcett had their season's first test at Howard. While the Wildecats lost, 33-14, they grew as a team, finding a leader in Fawcett.
He roamed the sideline, screaming and clapping louder than anyone in an attempt to push his teammates. Other times, he challenged some of his 300-pound linemen to play tougher and directed his receivers to run routes based on his read of the secondary.
Before Wilde Lake's pivotal 13-10 win over Oakland Mills on Oct. 16, Fawcett stood in the hallway and slapped hands with every player, saying, "This is the game we've waited for, fellas."
"He's a natural leader," DuVall said. "I think all he needed was a nod."
Said Swope: "I actually told him that's he's now too concerned with the rah-rah aspect. As a quarterback, his job is to have his head into the game and not let his emotions get too carried away."
Once Fawcett drives his 160,000-mile Nissan Sentra to school, he is uncomfortable dealing with the glamour of being quarterback. But he knows his time as quarterback will soon be behind him. Fawcett has a 3.7 grade-point average and is considering James Madison, Maryland and New York University. He has decided to concentrate on academics and not play football in college, even though he probably could start at a Division I-AA or III school.
Fawcett has raised his game in the same manner as his leadership, throwing for 711 yards and nine touchdowns, including the game-winner that beat River Hill on homecoming.
"Now, he's kind of like, 'I'm the man and I'm running the show,' " left guard Steven Jefferson said. "And don't talk in his huddle, or you'll get yelled at."
The usually silent Mario Merrills walked to the locker room with Fawcett before the Oakland Mills game and said, "I got a special feeling about today. I'm going to break something long."
But Merrills had a tough time against the Scorpions' defense until overtime, when he spun out of a tackle behind the line of scrimmage and ran 10 yards -- his longest gain of the game -- for the winning touchdown.
Merrills, a 5-11, 170-pound runner who rarely celebrates, strutted a little bit in the end zone and then walked calmly off the field. He stopped to hug his sobbing girlfriend, Carly Hughes, who exhibits more emotion at games than Merrills. Last week, he scored the winning touchdown again in a 7-0 victory over Centennial.
"I have never seen him get angry or mad," said running back Curtis Gore, who has known Merrills for nine years. "He just plays it cool. He always keeps his head."
Merrills, who relaxes before games by listening to reggae on his Discman, has rushed for 714 yards and 11 touchdowns. The junior running back, who clocked 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash, wants to play for Penn State and has attended Nittany Lions summer camps. Their recruiters, and some who scout the Mid-Atlantic for various colleges, are interested.
He always has had the support of his family to play sports. His father, Al, used to take Mario to Wilde Lake games as a boy. Back then, Mario only glimpsed the action because he liked to stand under the bleachers to catch falling candy thrown by the cheerleaders.
Al, who is a guidance counselor at Wilde Lake Middle School, has coached Mario all of his life. On Sundays, the two break down the previous day's game.
Before watching the game tape, Merrills attends Long Reach Church of God every Sunday. He carries his faith close to him, kneeling for a prayer before the game starts and drawing a cross on each of his wristbands.
"I always give thanks to God," Merrills said. "I feel I have been blessed this year. I just hope the blessings keep coming."
It was just another Tuesday practice earlier this month, and Nyema Wilson decided to provide some entertainment during a lull.
"I bet you that I can catch one of those pigeons," said Wilson, looking over at the field several yards down. Said defensive coordinator Mike Harrison: "I bet you won't even get close."
The 6-5, 175-pound Wilson flopped around the muddy field and came back empty-handed. Coaches and players nearly doubled over with laughter in watching him try.
Wilson is the Wildecats' most versatile athlete because he punts, kicks off, plays safety and splits time at wide receiver. But his most valuable role may be comedian. He regularly mocks his coaches in good fun and will use some of his teammates' mistakes during practice as a punch line.
"He's one of the funniest kids I've ever coached," said assistant Stu Sklar, who has coached for two decades. "The last couple of weeks, though, he has become an intense competitor. I never thought I would see that."
"He loosens everybody up," linebacker John Quinn said. "We need a voice like that to come up and get everybody relaxed."
Wilson, whose parents are natives of Liberia, was born in the United States but lived in the West African country from age 4 to 8. He was sent back here to live with relatives for two years because of the civil war in Liberia.
"It's hard enough to imagine how tough it is to have your family separated until it happens," said his father, John.
The family has been reunited here, but his father is retired from the foreign service and his mother had a kidney transplant last year. So Wilson's ticket into college is football.
One of the area's top punters with a 41.2-yard average, he booted a 60-yarder last week at Centennial. He has a scholarship offer from Morgan State but might attend Fork Union Academy, a Virgina prep school, next year.
Wilson learned how to pick on his teammates from being the youngest of three brothers.
"I try to let them know what they did was wrong," Wilson said. "But also, I want them to forget it. If they can't laugh about it, they will just mope around and they'll be no good the rest of practice."
Before his teammates ran their workout on a hill near the school on Wednesday, Comer Norwood left as usual with 40 minutes remaining in practice. He had to run his own race.
Norwood hurried off the field, made a quick stop in the locker room, then rushed home to shower and change into his work clothes. Finally he sprinted to Toby's Dinner Theater, where he helps prepare food.
While Norwood loves football, he doesn't have to play. But he does have to work.
Norwood's mother, Janice Langham, said her son has responsibilities. "Coming from having a single mother, you have to become more independent and self-sufficient," she said.
This week, he had a chemistry project due on Wednesday, a U.S. history report on the Old West yesterday, and a two-page report on "The Crucible" today. In between homework, he washed the dishes and did the laundry, making sure his football uniform was clean. Plus, he works 12 hours a week to help pay for his car insurance and field trips.
But for a chance to appear in only two or three plays a game, Norwood practices three hours a day on the "gold offense," the second-team unit that takes its lumps against Wilde Lake's first-string defense. On Monday, Norwood beat a starting cornerback on a deep route, drawing the loudest cheers of the day from his fellow backups.
The 5-3, 140-pound junior receiver, the smallest player on the team, did catch the first pass thrown at him this season, running 62 yards for a touchdown that helped Wilde Lake to a 20-13 victory over Long Reach. It's his only reception this year.
"Next year, I want people to fear me," Norwood said. "I want them to see me and the person covering me will want to step a few yards back. I want to play in the game and feel like I deserve it."