A few teenage girls wearing rubber boots hurried to organize Eastern’s sideline about 20 minutes before the Ramblers’ game against Phelps on Friday night, pushing together aluminum benches and neatly lining up water bottles for their boys warming up on the field. This was a night the players wouldn’t need them. There were so many reasons this game wouldn’t be played. Torrential rains swamped the field, and kickoff was delayed because a doctor was late arriving.
After the game kicked off, a 45-minute lightning delay in the first quarter sent all the players to the basement of the
Southeast Northeast school. The players anxiously waited to return to the field, knowing that a year ago none of this was possible. Eastern hasn’t had a varsity football team in more than five years. Phelps hasn’t had one since the Clinton Administration.
So the soaked teams pushed through the cold rain and waited out two delays — eventually returning to field to finish out the first quarter. And after two more plays, with Phelps leading 8-0, the officials decided they had seen enough. The game was called, but as Eastern junior linebacker Miles Bender saw it, the two teams could’ve played all night.
“It’s very disappointing,” Bender said. “I was excited.”
There was no immediate word on whether the two teams would make up the game. For 12 minutes on the game clock at least, Friday’s matchup was a symbol of the District of Columbia Interscholastic Athletic Association’s Stripes Division project, which was formed last year under a new initiative to bring more parity to high school football in the District. Both coaches, Eastern’s Jason Strickland and Phelps’s Sonny Price, were coaching their kids before the game, all the way up until kickoff.
Strickland took over at Eastern two years ago, when the school was relaunched and housed just freshmen. He doesn’t have a single senior on his team and has very few juniors. Not one of his kids has played varsity football before this season.
“We’re trying to build something here,” he said. “I think we’re a little ahead of schedule.”
Price was the entrenched coach at McKinley, another Stripes Division school, before jumping at the opportunity to interview for the Phelps job last winter. He was infatuated with building a program at a school that had been without one since 1998. And he’s starting to do it with kids such as Darrick Jones, a freakish athlete at wide receiver who has little football experience. Price also has stocked his team with a band of nomads. He has transfers from H.D. Woodson, McKinley and Bell and former players from the now-shuttered Spingarn.
“I’m trying to start some type of historical situation,” Price said.
Like Strickland at Eastern (2-4, 1-1 DCIAA Stripes), he didn’t inherit much material to start with. The weight room at Phelps (3-3, 0-1) consisted of one rack and a few broken elliptical machines. He has looked for chances to leave his thumbprint on the team — he added black to the team’s uniforms, for example. And he has taught his kids not to take any practice or game for granted. That’s why his junior receiver, Jones, looked so frustrated after the canceled game Friday night.
“It disrupted the flow. I couldn’t ball out,” Jones said. “It is vital to make up this game.”