Among the serene dog walkers and early morning joggers in the post-dawn quiet of Baltimore’s Patterson Park, a high school football team practices.
In some ways, the mid-August workout is typical. Whistles blow, cleats stomp against the grass during conditioning drills, and coaches scream out profane praise and critique. Summer practices begin at 6:30 a.m. to beat the heat. The team faces a common high school conundrum as it tries to identify a kicker before the season opener, which is rapidly approaching.
In other ways, though, it’s different. Backpacks with prestigious college logos — like Alabama and Ohio State — line the field, and the boys colliding with one another are bigger, more skillful, than most players their age. On this day, like most in August, the high schoolers will participate in football-related activities until at least 4:30 p.m.
St. Frances Academy, located in East Baltimore, is a college-level football program filled with high schoolers. Coach Messay Hailemariam boasts that his roster, collectively, has received 550 Division I scholarships. Essentially every player will play college football. That’s largely why they chose to attend the school.
“Football is about opportunity,” Hailemariam tells a group of linemen.
And while most high school teams bus across town or to neighboring counties for games, St. Frances will travel, one way, about 8,000 miles to play seven road games this fall, including treks to Texas, Florida and Hawaii. That’s nearly four times farther than University of Maryland football will travel during its regular season and more miles than any team in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the highest level of Division I, traveled during the 2021 regular season.
The Panthers are ranked No. 1 in The Baltimore Sun’s preseason poll of the area’s best, but they are perhaps the top team not just in the area or the state, but in the country.
The school, which was founded in 1828 with a mission to teach “children of color to read the Bible,” was an all-girls institution for the bulk of its history. But it became co-ed in 1974, and in 2008, added a football team. In the years since, thanks in large part to millions of dollars in donations and elite athletes choosing to play for the school — some coming from out-of-state — St. Frances has quickly established itself as a national high school powerhouse.
Tuition at the school, which is now about two-thirds boys, costs $11,600, but 70% of students receive some sort of financial aid and about 65% of football players receive full scholarships. Of its 215 students, 95 play football.
Because they attract top talent, sometimes from rival schools, the Panthers are generally not popular among other programs, but their success is unquestioned. The team of all-stars finished last season ranked fourth in the nation by USAToday. This year, they’re ranked No. 3 in the country by MaxPreps, an outlet that covers high school sports nationally. The Panthers are on the shortlist to be crowned the best in the country this season.
“That’s my main goal of the year: Win a national championship,” said 17-year-old junior quarterback Michael Van Buren.
Two days after Deacon Curtis Turner took over as St. Frances’ Head of School in 2008, he learned that the small school was adding a football team.
It was initially intended as a structured distraction. Rather than return to sometimes challenging home situations, many students were already hanging out at the school after classes ended, Turner said. Why not start a football team, leadership thought, to occupy students’ time after school in a productive way?
Biff Poggi, a successful football coach at Gilman who operated an investment company, was a St. Frances board member at the time. He donated $60,000 to get the program off the ground.
On-field success was slow, though, and the team went winless in 2010. Poggi and others — the “who’s who of Baltimore,” he said — continued to pour money into the program and Poggi eventually became its head coach. By 2017, the team, loaded with talented players, went 13-0 and won a second straight Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship, defeating Gilman by 34 points just two years after it had lost to the Greyhounds by 51.
Donations paid for scholarships for players, equipment, transportation from the school — which doesn’t have a football field — to practice fields like Patterson Park, travel to road games, as well as lodging in Baltimore.
Players, some from outside the city and others from challenging circumstances nearby, began living in homes paid for by the school in 2017. Now, 45 players reside in four homes in Baltimore: one in Canton, one in Federal Hill and two by the school, located near Johnston Square. Two coaches, acting as chaperones, live in each house, including Hailemariam.
Many of the boarding students are from within an hour or two drive of Baltimore, like Van Buren, who’s from Bowie, while about 10 of the players are from out of state.
Families of players pay about 10% of the cost of the living arrangements, but the bulk is financed by donations, which now number well into the millions of dollars, said Poggi, who coached the team from 2017 to 2020. When Poggi realized the school needed a kitchen during that time, Under Armour and its founder Kevin Plank provided the necessary $50,000.
Poggi left St. Frances to serve as the associate head coach at Michigan last year and he can no longer donate, per NCAA rules, but others have continued to give.
“The donation list goes from as small as $100 or $1,000 to people who give $100,000 annually,” Turner said.
Individuals could give their money to different institutions and have their name on a building, Poggi pointed out, but he said people are motivated by the overt impact they can have at St. Frances.
“The results have been outstanding. Forget the football results, yeah they’ve been off the charts … it’s not about that, honestly,” Poggi said, highlighting the school’s record of sending students to college, “it’s about changing guys’ lives.”
The football results have been hard to forget, though.
With talented players continuing to pick St. Frances, the school became astoundingly dominant, rarely playing a competitive game. Other MIAA teams refused to play St. Frances beginning in 2018, citing safety concerns presented by the Panthers. St. Frances leadership pushed back against that reasoning, saying the decision was instead racially motivated. Unlike other schools in the league, St. Frances’ student population is about three-quarters Black.
MIAA schools said that St. Frances was simply too good and that it wasn’t a fair fight, while Hailemariam said that there had not been a similar boycott when Gilman easily defeated opponents in the previous two decades.
“When we were getting beat up, it was everybody’s homecoming,” said Hailemariam, who also served a stint as St. Frances’ coach from 2011 to 2015 and was then an assistant under Poggi. “It’s no fun when the rabbit’s got the gun.”
After the MIAA schools’ refusal to play St. Frances, the team adopted an independent, national schedule. It will play more Canadian teams (two) than Maryland teams (one) this season. Their only in-state opponent is Arundel, a public school in Gambrills.
While most St. Frances players have multiple offers from FBS schools, Arundel has no such recruits.
Among high school football coaches, “there’s probably a negative buzz” around the St. Frances program, Arundel coach Jack Walsh said. But due to a late cancellation in their schedule, Arundel found itself in a predicament: play St. Frances, which was seeking opponents, or not play at all. Walsh met with 12 players on his team and, by an 8-4 vote, they chose to face one of the top teams in the country.
Safety issues were discussed, as was playing an overpowering team, but advantages — like getting to face future college stars and potential pro players — won out.
While that contest might be an uneven one, six of St. Frances’ games this season will be against teams currently ranked in the top 60 in the nation by MaxPreps. One matchup will be on ESPN2.
“My goal is to go after and play everybody in the top 20,” said Hailemariam, who was named the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches 2022 High School Coach of the Year. “I wanna play the best in the country.”
A college program for high schoolers
A junior walks into Hailemariam’s office one morning earlier this month, and the coach immediately peppers him with a question about an earlier workout. “Why were you late?” he asks.
Traffic, the player replies, and Hailemariam offers a threat — another tardy could mean a game suspension.
They are in Hailemariam’s office, a converted storage closet in the basement of a 140-year-old building on campus. The setting might not be state-of-the-art, but Hailemariam seeks to create a culture that reflects what each player is building toward: college.
Hailemariam is in his element coaching practice, bouncing from drill to drill, barking at players and dropping tidbits of wisdom when he sees fits. At the end of each practice, the team gathers for a debriefing, where the coach offers accolades as well as challenges. It’s all done to mimic the college experience, he says.
“Everything we do, that’s the goal,” Hailemariam said of preparing players for college.
Most of the more than 20 assistant coaches are Division I football alumni, including defensive line coach Wayne Dorsey, who played at Southwestern High and then the University of Mississippi. In addition to working a full-time job at Fort Meade, he volunteers as a coach.
“I want to be able to help them accomplish their dreams in an easier way than it took me,” Dorsey said.
One whiteboard in the St. Frances coaching office lists dozens of colleges — seemingly all 131 FBS schools in the country — each of which has spectated a practice this calendar year.
Even the ninth graders at St. Frances have FBS offers: 12 have at least five, and they haven’t even played a high school game yet, Hailemariam brags. Some were recruited by coaches to St. Frances, he says, while others sought out the school for the exposure it provides. But he adds that’s it not for everyone: Two players, each with high-profile college offers, transferred away from the school this season due to the demands.
The long days, the road trips, it all has the feel of a college. Even the process of attending St. Frances is reminiscent of a high schooler making a college decision.
Da’Shawn Womack, a West Baltimore native and one of the top senior defensive linemen in the country, said he considered a few Baltimore-area schools when he was in middle school, but he was wooed by St. Frances after a workout in eighth grade.
“I showed out and they loved the way I played,” Womack said after a recent practice, wearing a shirt of the school, LSU, where he’s committed, “and they called me the next day and offered me a full scholarship to come.”
PJ Wilkins, the nephew of Hall of Fame basketball player Dominique Wilkins, was born and raised in Georgia. Ahead of his senior year, the 6-foot-7, 345-pound lineman transferred schools but was ruled ineligible by his home state due to a complaint that he’d been recruited to his new school.
So, Wilkins began looking nationally for a place to play; sitting out his senior season wasn’t an option in his mind. He considered other national powers like IMG Academy in Florida or St. John Bosco in California, but Wilkins, who’d never so much as been to Baltimore before, opted for St. Frances.
He’ll likely only be in Baltimore for six months — long enough to play 10 games with St. Frances — as he, like many teammates, hopes to begin college in January as an early enrollee with a Division I program.
St. Frances’ home games are generally played on a no-frills field in Patterson Park, but on Nov. 18 the Panthers will host IMG, a boarding school that attracts talented athletes in a variety of sports. Hailemariam said that game will take place at the University of Maryland.
As recently as a decade ago, it was rare for high school teams to constantly play out-of-state games. It’s still uncommon for the vast majority of programs, but IMG and St. Frances are essentially in a league of their own in terms of their national recruiting and scheduling approach, said Zack Poff, a national football editor for MaxPreps. Each program was launched in the past 15 years, attracts top talent from near and far, and crisscrosses the country for competition.
There is no national championship high school football game. Instead, the top team is declared by various media. But should St. Frances and IMG meet as undefeated teams in their final game of the season, it could create a title bout scenario in College Park.
St. Frances will first embark on seven road trips, each of which is meticulously planned. Tiffany Brickhouse, the team’s academic advisor and de facto director of football operations, organizes such trips and, for flights, agrees to a contract with an airline for 70 tickets — 50 for players, plus coaches and support staff. (The program has 95 players, but only 50 travel for games, with the remaining athletes playing a regional varsity schedule.)
Each meal is mapped ahead of time on trips. “It’s like a machine,” Brickhouse says of planning travel. When the team visits Hawaii for a Sept. 30 matchup against a top-50 team, the team will be there six days, in part to adjust to the time change. That trip, by itself, will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
When the team flies, players report to the school four hours before their flight’s departure as they organize equipment and rides to the airport. There, they’re often confused for a college team.
“Even the kids walking through the airport is a production,” Brickhouse said. “People are like, ‘Who are these huge kids?’”
Not a typical team
Hailemariam hurries through post-practice comments Wednesday evening at Patterson Park. It’s nearly 5:30 p.m., meaning that a youth soccer team now has the field reserved, but the Panthers’ many position coaches are evaluating the day’s performance. Within two days, they’ll be on two charter buses, making the relatively short six-hour drive to Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, for their season opener against East St. Louis — ranked No. 59 in the country and No. 1 in Illinois by MaxPreps — in the Freedom Bowl Saturday.
In some ways, it’s been a normal high school practice. In many other ways, it hasn’t been. The running backs coach compares that day’s workout with what they’ll see at the Division I level. Hailemariam tells the players of teams that refuse to play them: “They’re scared.”
And rather than identify a long-term kicker from the roster, a top kicker is transferring into the program. He’ll be ready to play by the team’s second game.
For better or for worse, it’s not a typical high school football program.
“I want to be different,” Van Buren, the quarterback, said. “I don’t want to be normal like everybody else.”