The secret was already weighing on him as the team bus pulled out of Washington and headed north.
Tal Bayer, coach of one of the District’s most unlikely athletic success stories, sat at the front, his pale bald head a beacon to his roster of two dozen teenagers. He called them his boys, and the physical expression of their relationship — cleats, gym bags, rugby balls — were strewn all over the bus.
Bayer liked taking his rugby players out of the city, where so many of their lives are defined by struggle. “Every mile you get away from D.C., away from school, from the pressures of home, you can see the kids open up,” he said.
It was early March, and the Pride rugby team was headed to Philadelphia for its first real test of the season. Bayer had been making these trips since founding the program 14 years ago at what was then Hyde Leadership Public Charter and is now Perry Street Prep Public Charter. Pride is one of the only high school squads in the country composed entirely of black players, an inspirational story that in recent years had intrigued documentary filmmakers and Hollywood screenwriters.
Bayer’s teams have visited more than 15 states, and his best players have been part of scrums in nearly a dozen countries. In a city where barely one in three black boys graduates from high school, Pride’s most impressive record has been off the field. More than 150 inner city kids have played for the team. Nearly all have graduated from high school, and more than one third have gone on to play in college.
To his players, Bayer has been far more than a coach. He has been a guiding force in their lives, the father figure so many didn’t have.
“He’s like, everything,” explained Jihad Khabir, a junior easily recognizable on the field by his meticulously disheveled bush of hair. “Without him, I don’t think we’d be doing what we’re doing.”
That’s exactly why Bayer was struggling now. Being open and honest was a founding tenet of his program, but here he was alone with his secret. It felt ever-present — on the practice field, in the hallways, on the bus — and he worried students could see it on his face.
He had no idea how to tell them this year would be his last at Perry Street Prep, his final season coaching Pride rugby. After devoting so much of his life to building the program, it was time to walk away.
With each passing season, Bayer, a barrel-chested 42-year-old father of three, felt his life had become increasingly out of balance. He spent too much time with other people’s children and not enough with his own. After his wife, Tori, had breast cancer diagnosed in 2011, Bayer knew his priorities needed to change.
But it wasn’t as simple as stepping away from a job. Over the years, he’d watched so many adults walk out of his players’ lives. “I always promised myself I wouldn’t be that guy,” he said.
The guilt gnawed at him, along with uncertainty about what would become of his players and program. For Bayer, this trip to Philadelphia marked the beginning of the end.
The color of success
“Let’s go, boys,” Bayer yelled after his players stepped off the bus. “Let’s get our stretching in.”
The opponent was Xavier High School, a rugby powerhouse in Manhattan where tuition runs almost $14,000 a year. Like every team Pride played, its players were almost entirely white and affluent.
Rugby is a power sport, a close cousin of American football but without the padding, blocking and forward passes. There are 15 players on a side, all working to muscle the ball across the goal line. Its popularity in the United States has exploded with an estimated 1.1 million participants now playing the sport. A version featuring seven players on each side will debut in the 2016 Olympics.
Bayer fell in love with the physicality and camaraderie of the sport playing intramural rugby at Radford University in Virginia. When he began teaching at Hyde, students would ask him about the bruises and black eyes he got playing club rugby, and he began tossing a ball with them after school. Before long, he’d organized a team.
In that first season, Pride lost all 14 games – each by at least 60 points – but Bayer seized that momentum, trying to sell as many kids as possible on the unfamiliar game. In the program’s early days, there were some isolated racial incidents – a school refusing to play in the inner city, an opposing player urging Pride to “go back to picking cotton” – but now the team’s prowess is well-established, and skin color rarely comes up.
The real challenges facing Pride players are the ones facing many D.C. teens: poverty, crime and street corner temptations. Even getting to and from school isn’t always easy.
One of Pride’s seniors, Marcus McIntyre, was walking home from practice a few years ago when he was jumped. He sprinted the final few blocks and didn’t discover until he reached home that he’d been stabbed near his left kidney.
When Bayer started coaching, it was difficult to appreciate the daily obstacles his players faced. Once, two players found a dead body near their practice field. Bayer’s knees started shaking, prompting the boys to tease him.
In Philadelphia, Pride began its season full of jitters. The team fell behind 21-0, but Christian Adams, an athletic senior, scored twice in the second half, and Pride cut the Xavier lead to just two.
“Looking good, guys!” Bayer yelled. “It’s starting to look like it’s supposed to.”
They’d get no closer, though, losing 31-19. Still, it was a good starting point for the season,the coach told the team.
“Guys, I’m real proud,” Bayer said. “That was great effort out there.”
Their goals for the spring were simple: try to win their league, defend the national championship they’d won in 2012, make sure their seniors graduated. And Bayer had a goal of his own: Find the right way to say goodbye.
A lump in his throat
Bayer wasn’t on school grounds the March day the fire alarm sounded. He’d had to stop by a sporting goods store.
One of his players, Cecil Rich, a 6-foot-2-inch, 255-pound junior, had been selected to play with the U.S. national under-17 team at a camp in England. The national organizing body would pay the travel costs, but Cecil needed new shoes, which weren’t in his family’s budget.
Cecil knew what it was like to do without. There was a four-month stretch during middle school when his family lived in a shelter.
“I haven’t called a place ‘home’ in awhile,” the 17-year-old said. “I just call it ‘where I rest my head.’ ”
Bayer tries to make sure money doesn’t keep talented kids away from rugby. He sought help from the embassy of New Zealand, a rugby-crazed country. The embassy writes an annual check for about $10,000 that helps pay for everything from out-of-town tournaments to $90 fluorescent cleats for Cecil.
When Bayer returned to the Northeast Washington school, he saw hundreds of students on the grass field across the street. “Guys, what’s going on?” he asked the group wearing blue Pride rugby jackets.
Bomb threat, they explained. The school had been evacuated after the discovery of a handwritten note left on a bathroom windowsill. As students waited for police to investigate, Bayer spotted several trying to sneak back into the school. When he said something, some became confrontational. “You wanna step, [expletive]?” one demanded.
Bayer was a late-comer to education, and this was hardly what he envisioned when he made the leap. He came from a military family – his father was an Air Force helicopter pilot – and had two passions in college: rugby and music. He was a founding member and lead singer of the Pietasters, a popular ska band.
After leaving the band in 1993, Bayer became a bank loan officer in Atlanta. He played rugby with club teams and spent his free time volunteering with children. “That’s how I caught the bug,” he said of his decision to become a math teacher.
Despite his unconventional background, he was the first classroom instructor hired by Hyde in 1999 – a school that emphasized character education but also underperformed academically.
Two years ago, Hyde turned into Perry Street Prep, shifting its focus to college preparation. Today the charter school has 900 students pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Ninety-seven percent are black, three in four are from low-income homes, and most still struggle in the classroom. Last year fewer than a third of Perry Street Prep’s 10th-graders scored proficient or advanced on the city’s standardized reading and math tests.
As the school’s mission changed, Bayer sensed a shift in students’ attitudes. They jaw back and forth now and show little respect for adults, a difference that was all too evident as the students waited for canine units to sweep through the school.
“This is exactly what I won’t miss,” he thought to himself.
At the same time, he knew that many players had come to rely on the rugby program for structure and direction. And to rely on him. He was especially worried for underclassmen, like Cecil.
“Rugby, to me, is life,” said Cecil, who hopes to play in college and for the U.S. national team. “All I dream about is rugby, all I play is rugby, all I think about is rugby, all I watch is rugby.”
Bayer wasn’t ready to tell Cecil and his teammates that he was leaving. Not yet.
“There are moments in this office where it’s a lump in my throat. Kids are talking about next year. I want to tell them,” he said, “but it’s not the right time. I don’t want kids to go, ‘Screw it, if he’s leaving, I’m done. I’m not coming back to school next year.’ ”
An eruption of anger
Before a kickoff in early April, Pride players formed a circle, and, as they do before every game, started swaying and singing the black national anthem.
Cecil started them off. “Lift every voice and sing,” he bellowed. His teammates joined in: “Til earth and heaven ring. . .”
Because Pride doesn’t have a field of its own, it was playing on the posh grounds of Georgetown Prep (tuition $31,000) in Bethesda. But the school’s imposing brick buildings and fancy athletic facilities didn’t faze Pride players. They rarely seem to notice the cultural and financial divide that separates them from opponents.
“Once the game starts, none of that makes a difference,” junior Robert Betts said.
For the first half of the game, Robert was stuck on the sideline because he’d missed several practices. “C’mon, put me in, man,” he pleaded with Bayer.
Robert had bleached his hair during the spring break. From afar, it looked like flames sprouted from his head.
The 17-year-old is the third of seven children. His father died of a heart attack nine years ago, leaving Tomasina Oliver to raise the large family on her own. At one point, she said, she nearly lost her children when a neighbor lodged a neglect complaint against her. She was juggling three jobs to pay the bills and acknowledged that she had to leave her kids alone for long stretches.
Oliver, 45, who now works as a midwife, managed to keep the family together. She likes what rugby has instilled in her children. The three oldest have played for Pride, and the younger ones have participated in camps. She wanted them all to play for Bayer.
“He’s the one person I know who can talk to Robert and get him to do what he’s supposed to do,” she said. “He always seems to make time for us. He’ll always be a part of our family.”
At Georgetown Prep, Bayer put Robert in the game for the second half, and Pride built on its lead. But as the score got out of hand, so did the play. To Robert, each tackle and each hit looked like a cheap shot. Finally, when two teammates fell to the ground with injuries, Robert erupted.
“What’s that?” he shouted, his nostrils flared, fists clenched.
Teammates had to drag him off the field. He continued to scream invectives as the game ended a couple of minutes later. “No. 6! Yeah, you! That play was late!” he yelled. “That’s [expletive] and you know it!”
Bayer quickly ordered his players to the far end of the field. It was a victory, but no one was celebrating.
“Listen,” Bayer said. “You’re going to have games like this where the other team is just trying to get you out of your game. You’re helping them by buying into it and running your mouth back. You’re empowering them. . . . Guys, I’m going to tell you the reality: We deal with stereotypes everywhere we go. . . . We’ve got to be twice as good, twice as focused.”
Juggling books and diapers
Pride practice typically ended around 6 p.m. But as Vernard Poindexter, a big forward with an even bigger smile, grabbed his bag and headed for the bus stop, his day was far from over.
Before the rugby season began, Bayer had called Vernard into his office because he knew the senior’s grades had fallen. That’s when Vernard, 19, revealed that he was now a father.
Though nearly all his players handle hardship, Bayer had become particularly concerned about Vernard. His mother died two years ago from breast cancer. His father has been in and out of prison – mostly in – on charges ranging from drugs to robbery.
“What Vernard’s dealing with now, I worry for him,” Bayer said. “He’s just got a lot on his plate.”
Vernard lives with his grandmother, Ethel Mitchell, in a small apartment in Northeast D.C. She helps care for 1-year-old Christian, who spent his weekdays during the school year with Vernard and weekends with his mother.
When he got home from rugby practice, Vernard juggled diapers and school books. He squeezed in as much homework as he could while his grandmother fed the baby, then he took charge of bathtime and bedtime. Once Christian was asleep, Vernard tried to finish his schoolwork. Sometime around 6 a.m., he was awakened either by his son’s cries or his grandmother’s knock on his bedroom door.
“It feels like I’m always tired,” Vernard said.
For much of the spring, his grade-point average teetered on the eligibility line – a 2.0 ‘C’ average. He was determined to graduate, though his grades slipped as he neared the finish line. Staying eligible to play rugby and remaining on track to graduate were tied hand in hand.
“He can’t afford to be blowing it this deep into his senior year,” Bayer said.
A passion’s toll
They met at a Fairfax club almost two decades ago. Tori Palm became smitten with the guy singing on stage, his voice rising above the horns and noise of the ska band.
Sixteen years of marriage, three children and one mastectomy later, Tori still admires her husband’s passion, now directed at his rugby program. Pride was ever-present in their lives, its toll often significant. Bayer’s devotion to the team meant he missed 13-year-old Emory’s honors breakfast at school, 10-year-old Colin’s martial arts lesson and 8-year-old Josephine’s Girl Scouts meeting.
The only father they’ve known is one who came home late with grass stains, who disappeared many weekends and who so often seemed preoccupied with other people’s children. Bayer was exhausted every night, and as the rugby season wore on, it only seemed to get worse.
“He’s here,” said Tori, a 43-year-old physical therapist, “but he’s not here.”
She’d been patient for so long, accepting of a husband who felt pulled by two families. But it bothered her to hear Bayer refer to the Pride players as “his kids” or “his boys.”
“No, these are your kids at home,” she said.
So when Bayer walked in their Arlington home in January after a particularly rough day at school and said, “I can’t do this anymore,” she was relieved. “He’s finally come to the realization that there has to be balance,” she said.
Months later, Bayer still wasn’t sure what he and his family were moving toward. They hoped for a fresh start, so they’d made visits to Arizona, North Carolina, Colorado and West Virginia, scouting neighborhoods and dropping off his resumes at high schools, small colleges and sports-related organizations and her resumes at hospitals. Back home they met with an Arlington realtor, discussed how to stage their house, sold a kayak on Craigslist and held a garage sale.
All the while, Bayer worried about how his decision would impact his team.
The funding and support seemed secure – the school paid for league games in the area and fundraising and donations helped with out-of-town trips and tournaments. But who would put in the time to foster those relationships? Who would stay at the school until 10 p.m., making sure everything’s in order for games, tournaments and practices? Who would keep his door open for players past and present to chat about life? Who would drive kids home when practice runs late or splice together highlight videos to send to college coaches? Who would make sure they all had food and cleats and purpose?
He knew his wife and kids had paid a price for his dedication to his players. Before he took Pride on trips, he withdrew around the house, emotionally steeling himself and his family for his absence. It was the same thing his father used to do before a deployment, and Bayer wasn’t proud of emulating it.
He couldn’t shake something Colin said one recent night while Bayer was packing for an out-of-town tournament: “Daddy, are you going away with your boys again?”
Inside Perry Street Prep’s 80-year-old brick building off South Dakota Avenue, many students were already preparing for finals. Cecil had a seat at the front in Mike Tresnowski’s social studies class, where a chart hanging on one wall compared the $32,552 earned by the average high school graduate to the $53,300 by the average college graduate.
“Why wasn’t Ford as respected by many people?” the teacher asked, referring to the country’s 38th president.
A couple of doors down, Vernard’s physics teacher, Samantha Koonce, called him to the white board to work out a problem involving force and newtons and acceleration.
“All right, clap it up for Vernard,” she said when he finished. “Thank you very much, Vernard.”
And in Tiera Bailey’s U.S. history class, Robert and a classmate with long eyelashes and bulky jewelry plotted a World War II skit on Japanese Americans forced into internment camps. They bickered over character names.
“They have to have Japanese names,” he said. “You don’t know Japanese names.”
“I know Japanese,” she insisted. “I get my nails done. ”
Upstairs, a couple of students had gathered in Bayer’s small office off the gymnasium.
“You’re going to Life, right?” one player asked Christian Adams.
With floppy, twisted locks that stretch toward his shoulders, Christian has the natural talent and charisma that’s the envy of many. He’s determined to play in college, with the eventual goal of playing for Team USA in the Olympics. He’d been talking recently with coaches from Life University, a chiropractic and health education school in Atlanta with a renowned rugby team. But Christian was concerned because it didn’t offer his preferred major, criminal justice.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I do, but I don’t. I’m scared. I’ve been accepted. But I just keep having second thoughts.”
Dan Payne, Life’s director of rugby, had recently watched Pride play in a tournament in New York and passed out brochures to players afterward. “Good work,” he told Christian that afternoon. “Keep in touch, all right?”
Robert, Cecil and Christian huddled around one of the brochures, scanning Life’s team photo. “It’s like, go down the line,” Robert said. Of the nearly four dozen faces pictured, only one, a former Pride player, was black.
“Find Waldo,” Christian said, drawing chuckles from his teammates.
Pride in the Big Apple
A draining loss
Reeling off a string of lopsided wins over St. John’s and DeMatha, Pride reached the league championship game against Gonzaga in May. The two schools have squared off for the Metro Area Varsity Rugby Conference title four out of the past five years, and Pride has won only once.
Before the game, Bayer gave each player his jersey and asked him to reflect on what it means to wear the school colors and play alongside his teammates. The coach still hadn’t divulged his secret, unwilling to distract his players with his looming departure.
As they headed for their bus, students and faculty lined the halls and clapped for the team, singing “Lift Every Voice.”
Gonzaga (tuition $18,550) has deep rugby resources, sporting as many coaches and volunteers as Pride has players. In a school of more than 900 boys, one in five plays rugby.
So it wasn’t a huge surprise when Gonzaga cruised to victory, topping Pride yet again by an embarrassing 53-3. The players looked drained as they walked through a line of high-fives congratulating Gonzaga.
“I know you can’t be happy with how you played,” Bayer said afterward. “I’m not happy. . . . You play in a league against teams that are better resourced, better funded, have better facilities – yet you keep coming back. . . . I can tell you this, there’s not much else in my life, other than my wife, my kids, my family, that I’m more proud of than you guys. So remember that.”
And then he reminded them that the season wasn’t entirely over: the big prize – the national tournament – was still ahead.
For several days before the Collegiate Rugby Championship, the coach barely slept. Pride won the high school divison of this event last year, and the players were eager to defend their title. Bayer knew this tournament in Philadelphia would be his last. He also knew it was finally time to unburden himself.
The team ate breakfast and checked in with tournament officials. Then Bayer asked his boys to gather in Parlor B, a nondescript meeting room on the second floor of a downtown hotel. Pride players, dressed in khaki shorts and blue collared team shirts, twiddled with their smartphones as Bayer sat down in front of them and took a deep breath.
“So, um, I don’t know how else to put this, but this is my last year coaching,” he said.
There was silence. No one seemed to blink.
“It’s been a tough few years for me” – Bayer’s voice started to crack – “with my wife and my family, and I’ve wanted to tell you guys earlier. Something always seemed to come up which prevented me from doing it.”
As his words hit them, eyes clinched shut. A couple of boys buried their faces in their hands.
He explained the conflict between his obligations to them and his obligations to his family. Some of the players started sniffling. There was a long pause while Bayer composed himself.
“Normally not an emotional person,” he said, “but I hope you understand, you guys mean a lot to me.”
“So what’s gonna happen next year?” Robert asked.
“I’ve already talked with the school administration,” Bayer said. “One of my worries is this program will wither. . . . I think the alumni are going to be crucial to ensuring that this doesn’t happen.” But he couldn’t tell them who would replace him; the school is still searching for a new coach.
When he finished, Bayer rode the elevator to his room in silence. In the hallway, Cecil leaned against a wall and cried. Christian walked over and wrapped his arms around both Cecil and Marcus McIntyre.
“Even though he’s stepping down, this is a moment where we need to step up,” Christian said. “Turn it up this weekend. Practice hard, ball out tomorrow, ball out Saturday, we gonna be in the stadium Sunday, and we gonna turn it up. And after we turn it up, we gonna win and then we gonna celebrate.”
Wanting to win
The CRC tournament brought together 32 of the country’s best high school teams, a three-day event crammed with high-speed, seven-on-seven action, the same brand of rugby that will be featured in the 2016 Olympics. It’s a game well-suited for a quick, athletic team like Pride.
But it was going to be missing Vernard, who needed to remain in Washington and finish class projects to graduate.
“I been slacking fourth quarter,” he said. “I made it tough on myself.”
Even without Vernard, Pride cruised in the first two days of the tournament. While its arch rival, Gonzaga, was ousted early, Bayer’s team won five games by a combined score of 181-29 and advanced to the final. The coach’s departure had raised the stakes for them.
“It makes this so much more than just a tournament. . . . This is something we can give to him,” Robert said. “We can do this for him.”
On an overcast June morning, the team arrived at PPL Park outside Philadelphia for the championship game. In a staging area, the kids ate sandwiches without speaking. Bayer faced them from the other side of a fence, his forehead pressed against the metal chain links, his mind gravitating toward the inevitable: This chapter that had consumed 14 years of his life would be over in a couple of hours.
Pride was set to face Union, a Tulsa-based team with menacing girth. “1-2-3 kill! 1-2-3- kill!” its players chanted as the two teams stood side-by-side in a tunnel waiting to take the field.
Pride countered, its words harmonizing and echoing in the bowels of the stadium: “Lift every voice and sing, til earth and heaven ring.”
The clock started rolling and about 4,000 people cheered on the teams, who began slowly, circling one another like cautious prizefighters. Finally, sophomore Morris Ray, whom everyone calls June Bug, found an opening and burst across the line for the game’s first score, giving Pride a 5-0 lead at the half.
But less than two minutes into the second half, Union managed to tie the game. And then three minutes later, it scored again. After converting the kick – similar to an extra point in football but worth two points – Union led 12-5. Pride had barely two minutes to work with, its season, its championship hopes, its coach’s career ticking away. On the sideline, Bayer took off his cap and nervously rubbed his scalp.
Finally, June Bug broke loose and with 1 minute 2 seconds on the clock scored again, cutting Union’s lead to 12-10. Suddenly, Pride was on the verge of tying the game. The excitement didn’t last long, however, as Pride missed a tough kick and Union was able to eat up the game’s final seconds to preserve the slim, two-point win.
The week’s emotions all uncorked at once. The tearful team returned to the staging area, where Bayer tried to console them.
“I wanted the same storybook ending you did. . . . It just didn’t click. Sometimes that happens. You can want it so bad, but it’s not always enough.”
The players trudged out to the parking lot to drop off their bags. Bayer trailed behind, walking alongside a downtrodden junior named Justin Owens.
“What’s wrong?” Bayer asked as a light sprinkle began to fall.
“Wanted to win it for you,” Justin said.
A bittersweet celebration
“Ladies and gentlemen, family and friends, presenting the graduating class of 2013.”
The auditorium at Howard University exploded into cheers. In the first few rows, 90 graduates of Perry Street Prep Charter sat with blue gowns, mortarboards and gold tassels.
Christian’s mother and aunt leaped to their feet as he walked across the stage earlier this month. He’d finally settled on a college: American International in Springfield, Mass., where he could play rugby and pursue a criminal justice degree.
His grandmother cheered, holding Vernard’s son on her lap. While his teammates were in Philadelphia, he’d plowed through a 10-page essay on Beowulf, wrote a poem, labored through math assignments and conducted interviews for a journalism assignment, submitting it all just in time to graduate.
“I been waiting for this day ever since I started school,” said Vernard, who planned to get a job and enroll in classes at the University of the District of Columbia.
Bayer, wearing a blue blazer, watched from a cushioned seat in the audience, applauding as five of his boys collected their diplomas. For him, graduation day is always bittersweet. “Happy for them, excited they made it. But also a little scared,” he said. “You never know what’s next, what awaits everyone.”
He’s hopeful the program will remain strong. Players and alums have pledged their support, along with Shadwick Jenkins, head of school at Perry Street Prep. “It teaches kids about life,” he said. “It teaches them about teamwork, it teaches them about self-efficacy, it teaches them about how they’re going to continue on this path and be successful.”
Cecil and Robert had been selected to participate in a summer program, sponsored by the Auckland University of Technology, that annually sends two Pride players to New Zealand for six weeks of rugby. Three sophomores will attend a similar program at the University of California-Berkeley this summer, paid for by donations.
Outside the auditorium, rain began to fall in sheets. Bayer, his blazer soaked, found each of his players, exchanging hugs and emotional goodbyes.
“You decide where you’re going?” Christian asked him.
“Getting there,” said Bayer, who received his final paycheck from Perry Street Prep this month. “Figuring it out still.”
He had no umbrella and streaks of water slid down his smooth head. As students piled into cars and headed for celebration lunches and afternoon parties, Bayer stepped into his Jeep Wagoneer. It was time to go home.