“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.”
Goodbye to the ‘big fella’
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.