Standing at midfield on Eastern High’s football field on Thursday afternoon, Dunbar junior defensive back Carlos Atkinson couldn’t believe what was happening. The Crimson Tide had every reason not to be here, yet it was celebrating another Turkey Bowl victory.
Though much of the adversity was of its own making, the Crimson Tide overcame it. Further fueled by the attention bestowed on its opponent, Coolidge and Coach Natalie Randolph, Dunbar turned to a strong rushing attack and an opportunistic defense to beat the Colts, 33-21, for its 10th D.C. Interscholasic Athletic Association football title.
“It’s just unreal,” Atkinson said repeatedly.
It was a scene Atkinson admits he had trouble picturing more than two months ago when he was also confronted with a situation he struggled to comprehend.
On a Monday in mid-September, players were called to a team meeting to listen to their athletic director and coaches tell them D.C. Public Schools officials had fired then-head coach Ashaa Cherry for playing three ineligible players. Only a week before the Crimson Tide had learned that it would have to forfeit a DCIAA West game for its role in a fight that ended its season opener.
Some players tried to hide their tears. Dunbar, a city powerhouse and winner of eight of the previous 13 titles, would have much to overcome to win a title this fall. Longtime assistant coach Willie Bennett was named interim coach.
“There was a lot of disappointment in the locker room,” Atkinson said. “But we still had to practice.”
And they did, even without three academically ineligible players, including one of Dunbar’s standouts. Each DCIAA West game was a must-win because two losses could have jeopardized the Crimson Tide’s playoffs hopes.
“We knew we had to keep pushing forward,” said senior running back Olu Izegwire.
Izegwire and senior backfield mate Curlee Walker led much of the push during the regular season, and they punctuated it Thursday, combining for 273 rushing yards against the Colts (8-3).
Izegwire, who took on an even larger load this season when he filled in at quarterback when starter Lamel Matthews was injured for four games, led the Crimson Tide (9-3) with three touchdowns.
His 73-yard punt return for a touchdown gave Dunbar a 13-7 late in the first quarter. Coolidge senior defensive end Chuck Gaines tied the score at 13 when he returned an interception 66 yards early in the second quarter.
Dunbar, however, pulled ahead two possessions later on a 28-yard Matthews pass to Maxie Stevens. It was a lead the Crimson Tide didn’t give up.
Seven minutes into the third quarter Dunbar took a 33-13 lead on a 12-yard Izegwire touchdown run.
“We knew they couldn’t stop the run and we had to come out and attack their weakness,” Walker said. “On the defensive side of the ball, we stopped the pass.”
Atkinson intercepted two Coolidge passes, the first two of his career, and the Dunbar defense allowed only one second-half score to Coolidge’s high-octane passing offense that committed four turnovers.
“We were making mistakes on our own,” Randolph said. “At any given moment, things could have turned around.”
Before the final play, Crimson Tide players dumped a bucket of ice water on Bennett. And while he spoke to his players in a huddle at the 30-yard line, a throng of at least six television cameras swarmed Randolph.
But this was Dunbar’s moment, and one it was accustomed to, having played in this game 13 of the past 14 seasons (winning nine times).
“This is one of the biggest wins in Dunbar’s history because everyone counted us out,” said Bennett, dripping from the water bath and clutching a ball in his right arm, awarded to him by the team.