For the past six months, Damian Prince has fielded some version of the same question more than a thousand times, inquiries from mostly strangers who all seem to have an opinion on where the McNamara senior should spend the next four years of his life.
But for as rare as Prince’s blend of size and skills is, making him the nation’s top uncommitted offensive lineman, the 17-year-old’s path to football stardom is even more unique, beginning with the murder of his father and shaken by the death of a great-grandfather who also served as his guardian.
On Wednesday, Prince’s journey will culminate when he joins hundreds of area players and thousands nationwide who will take part in the 24-hour frenzy of National Signing Day, the first date that seniors are allowed to sign a national letter of intent to play college football.
Prince, a Parade All-American, is expected to choose between Florida and Maryland around 10 a.m. on ESPNU. The vast majority of the area’s other college-bound players, such as Woodbridge’s Da’Shawn Hand (Alabama), Lake Braddock’s Caleb Henderson (North Carolina), Good Counsel’s Sam Mustipher (Notre Dame), DeMatha’s Brock Ruble (Florida State) and St. John’s’ Will Ulmer (Maryland), already have committed to their school of choice.
Throughout the process of whittling down more than 40 scholarship offers with coaches and fans beckoning for his services at each turn, there is one voice Prince wishes to hear above the rest.
“If my great-grandfather was here, I feel like this decision would be a lot easier,” Prince said. “It’s hard to talk about such a big decision to people who don’t really understand you.”
In December 1995, four months before Prince was born, his father, also named Damian, was shot and killed in Southeast D.C. The circumstances surrounding his murder remain unclear and no arrests were ever made.
Initially, Prince’s mother, LaKeyia Chappell, did her best to expose her only son to strong male influences. But as the single mother struggled to support four children, Chappell eventually talked with Prince’s great-grandparents, Willie and Jean Prince, about having her youngest move into their Mitchellville home.
“At the time, I was having my own struggles, and they were nurturing people, so it didn’t take a lot to know that that was the right thing for Damian,” Chappell said.
The Princes supported their great-grandson in every way, from the eating habits that morphed him into a 200-pound middle school student to the sports practices that Willie shuttled Prince to and from in between his shifts as a police officer at the Veteran Affairs Medical Center. Along the way, Willie would share stories from his boxing days in the military while instilling values in his great-grandson.
“It was never like I didn’t have any parents,” Prince said, “because when it was all said and done, I was their son.”
As Prince began to shift his focus from basketball to football, he, with guidance from Willie, chose to play at McNamara. There, he emerged as a starter by the end of his freshman year and landed his first offer from Maryland the following spring.
But the quality drive time with Prince disappeared on the evening of Nov. 28, 2011. That night, Willie Prince pulled over to help a stranded motorist jumpstart his car. As Willie made his way back across the street, the 78-year-old was struck by a oncoming vehicle. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Prince was at home playing video games when he heard the news.
“When my neighbor said there was an ambulance by his car, we thought either he was hurt or he was in there with somebody else because he was always helping people,” Prince said. “Once we found out what happened, I couldn’t believe it. All of a sudden, it was like, what am I going to do? Who’s going to take care of me? Who’s going to understand me?”
In the months afterward, Prince wrestled with the notion of giving up football. But after several talks with his mother and grandparents, who had taken him in, Prince decided the best way to honor his great-grandfather was to keep playing. In the Mustangs’ 2012 season opener, which fell on what would have been Willie’s 79th birthday, Prince switched his number for that game from 55 to 79 in honor of the man he called “Dad.”
Over the past two years, Prince has continued to take positive strides. He elevated his stock by dropping 50 pounds last summer and served as a key piece to the Mustangs’ improvement under first-year Coach Keith Goganious. And with Wednesday’s announcement, the 6-foot-5, 292-pound Prince is set to become the first person in his family to attend college, achieving another goal he often discussed with his late great-grandfather.
“He’s kind of got the world right there at his fingertips, and it’s a blessing, particularly after all the stuff he’s gone through before the age of 18,” Goganious said. “He’s a special young man, and his story tells you about perseverance and keeping your dreams alive.”