Last fall, McKinley Tech student Matt Austin, then a junior, sat in the bleachers as he watched the school’s football team finish out its season with a 2-8 record. He had played on the junior varsity team as a freshman, but discouraged by a lack of playing time and an ankle injury suffered during practice, he quit.
But Austin had friends on the team, and he saw them grow closer despite the losses. The Trainers also had a new coach, Al Kallay, whose leadership Austin could see from the stands.
“I knew that the coach was really passionate about football,” he said. Austin was more impressed with the way Kallay “would talk to the players after the game. When they lost he would settle them down.”
Austin made a decision: “I thought, maybe if I came back I could be part of a brotherhood of people who no matter win or lose, they keep their head held high knowing that they gave their all. And that was the most important part to me — that I could be a part of that.”
He started lifting weights after last season. Kallay had started a strength and conditioning program at the school, using his own money to buy some new equipment and fix up the weight room. Kallay welcomed Austin and anyone else who might show up.
The football team, whose last Turkey Bowl appearance was in 1970, had never been much of a draw at the school. In addition to Austin, this season Kallay had several players who had never set foot on an athletic field. He had to teach some new players the proper mechanics of running before he could teach them football.
“When I first came back, I didn’t know what to expect,” Austin said. “I felt like I was injury-prone. I felt like I had two left feet. All I knew was that I was ready to work.”
Kallay stressed that athletes could be made and skills could be taught. He bought parachutes for speed training. For the first time in years, the team watched film.
“We came a long way, and it really means a lot to me,” Austin said. “Some people are going to score more than others. Some people are going to make more tackles than others. But that doesn’t matter. Literally it doesn’t. Football is a team sport, and you rely on other people.”
The Trainers (9-4) have advanced to the D.C. State Athletic Association playoffs, where they will play Friendship Collegiate on Saturday. They have seven shutouts.
“There’s something about when you’re working hard with someone and you guys have the same goals, the same ambitions, the same hunger,” Austin said. “You can’t beat that.”