All season, local businesses, residents and civic leaders have showed growing enthusiasm for the Rams as the team won game after game. After two high-profile shooting deaths of Suitland students earlier this year, the team’s perfect season has given the community exactly what it needed: a reason to cheer for its beloved high school.
“I hope we can help them to stay focused and do something positive with their lives,” said Taylor, a 2011 Suitland graduate.
In front of a home crowd that will be clad in red and black, the Rams will face off against the DuVal Tigers on Saturday in the Maryland 4A South regional final.
“We just need people to show up to the game and encourage the players,” said the school’s principal, Nate Newman, pointing to the contribution of a local Chick-fil-A that has helped feed players as well as coaches. “I want to get everybody aboard the Suitland train.”
It's been a difficult year for the high school. Even though the students did not die on school grounds, the school was branded as dangerous in the months after the shootings. School officials and students said the team’s success this year has helped the entire community recover from the trauma.
Eric Wade, the team’s offensive coordinator, is tired of how Suitland is portrayed but said that the players are ready for the challenges that lie ahead. “Somebody even wrote that these kids aren’t mentally tough enough to win a state championship,” Wade said. “If anything, our kids are mentally tough. We just need the support of the community.”
So, residents have cooked extra meals for the players. Pastors have offered to open church doors when the team needs extracurricular activity space. The team has been given an opportunity by a local agency to practice at night at a field because Suitland’s field doesn’t have lights. And a nearby variety shop is ready to print shirts if the team keeps winning. If Suitland prevails Saturday, the team will go to the state semifinals next week.
Suitland’s players are aware that their games mean more this year. Some were friends of the students that were killed: Charles Walker Jr., 15, was gunned down walking home from school in February; two days later, another student, 18-year-old Aaron Kidd, was fatally shot.
Senior running back Stephen Rivers said team members are playing hard because they want the community to be proud of their efforts. “It means a lot for the community to support us,” he said. “It means that we don’t feel alone. If the community is behind us, we know we can do better.”
Suitland, which has had successful teams, generally has not gotten much support from nearby chain restaurants and other businesses, which has made this year’s outpouring that much more special, school officials said.
“I want the community to be proud of this program,” said head coach Ed Shields. “We are trying to help ourselves, but if Suitland got more support from the community, we would be better off.”
That’s why many residents — including pastors and parents of former students — have gotten into the act. The Rev. Lawrence Barbour, pastor of nearby Expectation Bible Baptist Church, said he plans to be at the game Saturday.
“Our doors are open to help this football team any way we can,” he said. “My daughter went to Suitland. Young people need support. If they don’t get it, they don’t reach their full potential.”
And the wave of support has increased with each victory. One community resident hoped to start a placard-writing campaign so businesses could show off their support for the team in its drive to win the state championship.
Anthony “Tub” Jackson, a linebacker and one of the team captains, said playing for an entire community has given this team an extra purpose. “It feels real good to win for the whole community,” Jackson said as he and other players lifted weights Monday. “We want to keep going. We want to set an example.”