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President Obama honors Dunbar football players at White House

Carlos Atkinson, a junior at the District’s Dunbar High, didn’t have any great expectations when he learned that he and his football teammates were invited to the White House last Thursday. “I thought we were just going to visit,” he said.

President Obama was honoring the University of Alabama for winning the Bowl Championship Series national title in January and Dunbar — which shares the same nickname, the Crimson Tide, and won the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association title — was invited to be in the audience.

Still, Atkinson was excited. Wednesday, after getting home from school, he started planning what he would wear, deciding between two different dress shirts — one brand new and one that he just wore for Easter. He had no trouble sleeping that night but woke up earlier than usual. “I was anxious,” he said.

Johnnie Walker, Dunbar’s athletic director, was anxious too. For almost a week, he had to keep the visit a secret so the players wouldn’t share the news on Facebook or Twitter. But sooner or later he needed to say something, so the boys would know what to wear. “I battled with some of them right up until they got on the bus,” said Walker, arguing with them about dress shoes, slacks and ties.

Thursday, with the Alabama team gathered behind him, President Obama opened his remarks with a surprise shout-out to Dunbar, acknowledging D.C.’s “own Crimson Tide” and their championship. Atkinson, the defensive MVP of the Turkey Bowl, the DCIAA title game, couldn’t believe “the president actually knows who we are and all of our hard work paid off.”

That alone would have made the team’s day, but after his remarks, President Obama approached the audience and began to shake hands. The Dunbar players waited at the far end of the crowd. The president reached Atkinson and held out his hand.

Like a “regular guy,” the president stopped and chatted with Atkinson. It had never crossed Atkinson’s mind that the decision he made the night before would be the topic of conversation. “I like your shirt and tie. It takes a strong man to wear pink,” the president told Atkinson. “I laughed and said ‘Thank you, sir.’ I told him I would lend it to him, but I’m sure he can get a couple of those shirts on his own,” joked Atkinson.

An hour later, the team was back at the school working out, preparing for next fall. Every chance he got, though, Atkinson retold his story. Said Atkinson, “This is something that is going to stick with me forever.”

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