As juniors on last fall's Northern High School football team, wide receiver Michael Johnson admired linebacker Dominic Jones' ability to hit, and Jones liked to watch Johnson make defenders miss.
Similarly, quarterback Mario Knight and running back Travis Peay shared a close relationship on and off the field. When a hamstring injury ended Peay's season, Knight, his friend since their Hamilton Middle School days, tried to cheer him up.
At 3:45 p.m. today, however, their friendships will take a back seat to competition. Peay and Jones, wearing the blue and gold colors of school No. 418, line up against Knight and Johnson, in the black and silver of No. 419, at the old Northern stadium.
"Last year, we were the Northern Vikings. And that's still in my blood," Peay said. "But right now, I can only care about the team I'm on. Mario's my man, but we'll have to go back to being friends on Saturday. Because when I strap on that helmet and those pads, I'm going to play hard, run hard and do everything I can to beat 419."
In June, the city school board divided the students at Northern High into four schools. Nos. 418 and 419 remain in the 35-year-old building on Pinewood Avenue. A third high school, on East Northern Parkway, has ninth- and 10th-graders and offers JV programs. The fourth has ninth-graders on the grounds of Robert Poole Middle School in Hampden.
Players from Nos. 418 (Panthers) and 419 (Falcons) regularly walk, side by side, the quarter-mile to a practice stadium that houses their separate locker rooms by a mere 10 yards. The teams practice at the same time, alternating use of the soccer and nearby stadium fields.
Earlier this week, the gamesmanship already had begun. Johnson offered a handshake first to Peay, then Jones shortly after the players had entered the stadium. When Jones refused, the boys playfully exchanged intense glares before breaking into laughter.
"As we walk across the campus to the field, you try not to talk to them because, you know, it's getting close to game time, and this is 418," Peay said, pointing to the distant building formerly known as Northern High. Said No. 419 athletic director Rikki Sye: "They still talked trash, like, 'When we play each other, we're going to do this and that.' But I see it being more like Venus and Serena Williams: They'll compete on game day, but when it's over and the whistle blows, they'll be buddies again."
From its coach, Carver High and Morgan State graduate Dante Carter, to its undersized and relatively green players -- only two with significant time on Northern's varsity last year -- No. 418 has the look of the underdog despite its season-opening 37-0 shutout of Mount Zion Christian Academy.
Former Baltimore Stallion Chris Armstrong, 35, coaches No. 419. The Falcons have nine players, including Jermaine Taylor, Keith Whitaker, Tion Watters, Derrick Bias, Barrett Bracey, Brandon Gregory and Jamal Johnson, with starting experience. No. 419 lost its opener, 36-0, to Edmondson.
"I think 418 is seen as the junior varsity team, the outcasts and the nobodies," Carter said. "But we'll come out and play ball."
Jones hopes that the 418-419 series grows to rival that of Poly vs. City.
"Someday, I want to be sitting in my rocking chair, chilling, and be able to say, 'Hey, Mike, remember 95 years ago, when we beat you and 419? '"Jones said. "This is something I never want to forget. It's history."