The boys gathered on the bleachers, their sweat still glistening under the scorching sun. The afternoon’s football practice had been an especially difficult one. But no one complained.
“All right, listen: Good-looking practice these last couple days,” said Jessica Mathes, the athletic director at Options Charter. “First game coming up against Dunbar. Should be a good one for us.”
“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 . . .
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.”
Football keeps many students in school. It’s an outlet, a routine and a safe haven. The team is essentially capped at 32 players because that’s how many helmets Deane has. Still, he says, it’s incredible how much the program has grown since he started from scratch four years ago.
“Initially I was a little skeptical because football requires crazy, immense self-discipline,” Deane said. “From the population that we had, I wasn’t sure it would work.
“The first year, it was everything I thought it would be: It was a disaster.”
Some afternoons, just five or six players would show, but Deane decided early that any player who put on pads would be coached. Football skills were a small part of the equation; Deane wanted the teens to learn they could trust adults. Winning, hopefully, would come later.
“I remember our first football game,” said Donna Montgomery, the charter school’s chief executive. “I was just hoping and praying there would be no fights. Of course, we didn’t win the game, but we made it four quarters without fighting. I saw a breakthrough that evening.”
Still, there was a lot of work to do. The team was losing by five and six touchdowns. Even as the school’s young students sought stability, so did Deane. He relied heavily on a young assistant coach. Hall stood 6 feet 6, weighed about 325 pounds and because of his age and personality, he clicked with the students. “Love, for real,” is how quarterback Ryan Smith described the relationship.
Late one night last month, Smith called Hall to chat about a preseason NFL game. But Hall’s brother answered the phone and relayed the news that the young coach had died in his sleep.
The next Monday when the students gathered for practice, they were met by grief counselors. Most had heard about Hall’s sudden death but were still stunned when Deane shared the news. Hall died of an apparent cardiac arrest.
“They’ve all suffered losses: family members, friends, everything,” Deane said later. “But I’ve never seen them cry like that.”
The bus ride to Jenkins Funeral Home in Landover was uneventful. Teenagers had never been so quiet. The Panthers stepped off the yellow bus one at a time: the lineman, the tailback, the linebacker, the quarterback, all wearing their navy blue football jerseys.
Once inside, they all made a beeline to the open casket at the front of the room. They stood in silence. The last time they had seen Hall, he had been running around at practice. Smith took a photo with his cellphone and reached inside, touching the coach’s hand and arm. “I just wanted to see,” the sophomore quarterback said.
One by one, they turned and walked away, hardened young men reduced to quiet blank stares. The red cushioned seats offered little comfort.
Soon, Deane was at the front of the room behind a microphone, saying, “As you can see, as evidenced by the number of players I’ve brought with me today, he was much, much more to us than just a coach.”
Deane told the story about how he once coached Hall at Fairmont Heights, how Hall had barely left his teenaged years behind when Deane invited him to come to Options.
“He did something I never anticipated: He started becoming a mentor to young boys,” Deane said.
All the while, the Panthers looked ahead, many trying to suppress tears. For the moment, Dunbar didn’t exist. Football barely existed.
“I brought my players because I wanted them to understand that Coach Hall wasn’t your typical 23-year-old,” Deane said. “God took him in a more peaceful way. He didn’t go like you read in the newspapers or see on the television. This young brother was in the peace of his home, game-planning for our scrimmage the next day. That was Rayvonn.
“Big fella, we’re gonna miss you.”
When school let out one day earlier this week, the Panthers gathered their gear from the locker room. The team’s practice field is four blocks away, at Rosedale Community Center, so they have to walk through the neighborhood, carrying their pads and helmets.
Up E Street NE. Then 15th over to F. And 16th to Rosedale Street. Past alleys, a boarded-up home, a group of boys holding court on a corner. On Rosedale, three neighbors sat in lawn chairs on the sidewalk, each drinking a Miller High Life on a muggy D.C. afternoon.
“Want something from the candy lady?” asked Darian Capies, a junior. Smith nodded.
Capies disappeared inside a nearby home with a $5 bill and came out with two bottles of juice and $3 in change.
“Come on, let’s go,” Smith said. “We’re late.”
Because each player comes to Options with his own back story, his own issues, coaches develop a game plan for each student. On the football team alone, more than half the players have learning or behavioral issues and receive weekly counseling. Two-thirds of the players’ aggression levels measure in the 99th percentile.
Because many are reading at an elementary school level, Deane has detailed wristbands for each to wear that outlines plays and formations. Somehow, it all seems to be working. Options won the city’s inaugural charter school title last season, and this year no one bothers with horseplay or fighting at practices.
“This is their workplace,” said defensive assistant Brian Jackson, surveying the practice field, which is plopped in the middle of a Northeast neighborhood that has seen better days. “They’re not worrying about what happened in their neighborhood, what happened at school, what happened with a family member. They’re focused here.”
For many, it’s why they show up to class each day.
Loften weighed more than 400 pounds last year. With Hall barking at him each day, he dropped 100 pounds and is one of the team’s most talented players. “Football, man, it motivates me to be a better person,” he said.
His teammate Andre Lazenby had always loved sports, but school wasn’t as easy. He repeated the ninth grade four times, and his behavior always seemed to affect his schoolwork. Lazenby, 18, got into a fight with school officials last fall and was booted from Options.
“He told me, ‘I’m not going to back to no school,’ ” said his mother, Cherronne Q. Alston.
Lazenby instead sat at home depressed. An uncle and a cousin were fatally shot, which got Lazenby to thinking. “I realized that if I didn’t go back, there was a good chance the same thing was going to happen to me,” he said.
He wrote a letter to the school, apologized for his behavior and after completing summer school courses, Lazenby was allowed to re-enroll last month. Though he’s technically a junior, Lazenby hopes to earn enough credits this year to graduate.
“I just want to finish school and get out the neighborhood,” he said.
Coaches and school officials worry about life for students once football season ends. They need to not only keep students in school, they want them engaged. Many have come to rely on football to handle life’s stresses.
When Hall passed and coaches brought in the grief counselors, the students were upset their practice had been canceled. On that day especially, the Panthers said they needed something to hit.
“I still can’t believe he’s gone,” Smith said, “but ever since, everybody hitting harder, doing their workouts the right way, doing what they supposed to do. This year, we’re all doing it for Coach Hall.”