There have been a few moments this football season when Blake Dove put on his pads, pulled down his helmet and took a quick look at his surroundings on the football field. Some of his opponents — and teammates — are five years older. Others outweigh him by well more than 100 pounds.
Across the Washington area, only a handful of high school freshmen play varsity football each year, but Dove stands out even more. He is just 13 years old and plays one of the most physically demanding positions — linebacker — for one of the region’s traditional powerhouses, Seneca Valley.
“Last year, I was looking up to dudes like that and saying, ‘They’re big, goodness gracious,’ ” Dove said of the games he watched in 2010. “This year, they’re still just as big, humongous. Having a 290-pound lineman or quarterback trying to run me over?”
The Seneca Valley roster lists Dove at 5 feet 10 and 185 pounds, though he said that is one inch and 15 pounds too generous.
Still, Screaming Eagles Coach Fred Kim said Dove is more advanced than the typical ninth-grader — including his 14-year-old son, J.P., who starts at fullback and linebacker for the Urbana High freshman football team.
“My son is pretty tough . . . but I couldn’t imagine him trying to play up on the varsity with us,” Kim said. “Even as a sophomore. Let alone start on the varsity. Blake is the exception. I’ve never seen anything like this kid.
“I didn’t know he was 13, honestly. I thought he was 15. I forgot freshmen were that young.”
Remembering the storied history at the Germantown school, Kim noted that 1992 All-Met Offensive Player of the Year Bryan Blessing was a varsity backup as a freshman, while 1999 All-Met Offensive Player of the Year Chris Kelley was on the junior varsity as a ninth-grader.
“One of our assistant coaches is a youth league coach. . . and knew about Blake and told us he would play on the varsity last year,” Kim said. “Of course, we were all skeptical. That never happened at Seneca.”
Indeed, Dove, who turns 14 in two weeks, is more than two years away from getting his driver’s license. He has a boyish face. Teammates sometimes refer to him as “the baby freshman.” Like many teens, he is counting on a growth spurt. He constantly does push-ups and sit-ups at home, trying to build strength.
“The first thing that comes to mind is the difference between a freshman and senior boy and a freshman and senior girl is very different,” said James Dreese, sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon at the University of Maryland and team physician for the school’s athletic teams. “Women physically mature much earlier, by their freshman year of high school hit a rapid growth spurt. Whereas boys don’t finish growing until their junior or senior year of high school.
“The difference between a male freshman and a male senior is a tremendous difference, which is why you don’t see that many freshman boys playing physical sports.”
That is why Dove’s mother, Sharhonda Dove-Ricks, preferred her oldest child play on Seneca Valley’s junior varsity this season. While Blake has played football since age 6 and was courted by many of the area’s top private schools to play for their teams, she feared him going head-to-head against experienced juniors and seniors.
“I’ve seen those high school varsity boys and they’re big,” said Dove-Ricks, whose younger brother, Landraous Dove, starred at quarterback for Churchill in mid-1990s. “I know he can hang with the big guys, but I was afraid that he would get hurt.”
Blake spent a few days practicing with the junior varsity before Kim brought him up to practice with the varsity. If there was any doubt where he belonged, coaches and teammates were convinced during a preseason scrimmage when Dove tackled an opposing quarterback — who outweighed him by 60 pounds — with such force that the hit knocked off the quarterback’s helmet and pulled his shoulder pads over his head.
“He was big,” Dove said. “It was kind of like he wanted me to hit him. He gave me that look. He was looking at me and lowered his shoulder and I was looking at him.”
“That’s when we knew he could play,” said Kim, who has told Dove he could play a few snaps on offense some next season. “He was fast enough. Size-wise, he was big enough. But could he handle the physical aspect of it?”
Blending in with teammates and in the locker room could also pose a challenge, but Dove-Ricks said her son is used to being around older children. He became good friends with senior quarterback Tanner Vallely.
“I thought he was going to come in and be a real jerk,” said Vallely, 17. “People come in and think they’re hot shots. But he came in and was quiet the first couple days. I kept waiting for him to get comfortable and be kind of mean, but it hasn’t happened.”
Perhaps the biggest obstacle Dove has faced in getting on the field came from home. His mother would not let him play in the Screaming Eagles’ second game.
“It was more of a disciplinary tactic because he acted out of line at home one day,” Dove-Ricks said. “He still has to follow rules.”
The following Monday, though, Dove was back on the practice field and in the starting lineup. Seneca Valley plays Churchill on Friday night in a meeting of 3-0 teams; Dove said he is familiar with the Bulldogs’ lineup because he has cousins on the team. After two games, he is becoming more accustomed to the size and speed of the game.
“It feels like little league,” he said. “They’re not as big or as fast as [I felt] they were. They’re regular height and I have to hit them.”