“Fellas, all eyes on Ms. Mathes,” barked Derek Deane, the coach.
“Look, we all know Coach Hall’s funeral is tomorrow,” Mathes continued. “How many of you have intentions on going?”
Nearly every hand shot up. “Okay,” Mathes said, “the whole team? Okay.”
The whole Panthers team: a motley, unpolished crew of troubled backgrounds and newfound hope. Depending on who shows up each day, the team numbers about two dozen, and for every one, being out on a football field is a precious opportunity.
Most of the students at Options weren’t wanted at other public schools. They were pushed out, they caused problems, they weren’t learning. Nearly half of those enrolled at Options have repeated a grade at least once. Some enroll here on the recommendation of a juvenile judge. Seven in 10 have an Individualized Education Plan, which means they require special education to address learning disabilities or behavioral problems.
Most are looking for some semblance of stability, which is why Coach Hall — Rayvonn Hall, just 23 years old when he died unexpectedly last month — was so important.
“Coach Deane talked to you about wearing your jerseys, right?” Mathes asked. “Let’s be respectful of the family and respectful of the school and put a dress shirt and tie on underneath.”
“I don’t got no dress shirt,” one player said.
“I got ’em covered,” Deane assured Mathes.
They finished chatting about logistics, game-planning for a funeral. The season opener against Dunbar was around the corner, but everyone wanted to say goodbye to Hall first.
The Panthers gathered in circle, and their hands collected in the middle.
“Coach Hall on three,” someone said. “One, two three . . .
‘First year . . . a disaster’
Opened in 1996 in Northeast Washington, Options is the District’s oldest charter school, and its football team begins its fourth season Friday night against one of the city’s perennial powers in Dunbar. At Options, they don’t use the scoreboard to measure success.
Options targets students with special needs, learning disabilities, emotional and behavioral issues. Eighty-three percent of the students are from low-income homes and 78 percent have special needs. They come from the worst of backgrounds and face uncertain futures.
“If I wasn’t playing football, I’d probably be in jail or dead somewhere,” said Shawrod Loften, an 18-year-old lineman.
More than two-thirds of Options students say they had been suspended by their former schools for fighting. Others were truant, and still others found their way back to school after dropping out.
“These are the students who don’t really have any educational options in a traditional school,” said David Cranford, Options’ director of clinical services. “So if they weren’t able to come here, they wouldn’t even be able to participate in athletics.”