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Va. Football Players Warm to New Goal

Role in Wetlands Film Inspires Activism

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page B03

The seniors on a Fairfax County high school football team got a glimpse yesterday of their cameo appearance in a soon-to-be-released television film, but their thoughts were not of stardom or the silver screen. These players were dreaming about saving the nation's wetlands.

Sean Smith, 18, said his bit part in Discovery's Science Channel documentary "Coastal Crisis: The Vanishing Lands" has him thinking about starting a wetlands preservation group when he heads to the University of Notre Dame next year. His classmate, Jai Singh, 17, who is considering becoming an environmental engineer, is pondering devoting a few years of his career to coastal restoration projects.


Josh Berkley, a Thomas Jefferson High School alumnus and the film's producer, urges teens to join the campaign to protect wetlands. (Photos James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

The team members attend Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, an elite magnet school where students are better known for weighty research than for weight lifting. But this year, the football team -- which boasts the best record in the school's history -- decided to combine its athletic ability and brainpower in support of a campaign to restore Louisiana's shrinking coast.

"When we first heard about this, we thought, 'Wow, we'd get to be on TV, and that would be fun,' " said Brendan Burdette, 18, a defensive lineman. "But once we looked at the problem, the idea of helping out has kind of grown on us."

So what's the link between a Virginia football team and an environmental problem several states away?

Scientists say about a football field's worth of marsh and dry ground sinks into the Gulf of Mexico every half-hour, the unintended consequence of levees that keep the Mississippi in its banks and prevent silt from building up the delta. "Coastal Crisis" director Josh Berkley, the film's Arlington-based producer and a Thomas Jefferson alumnus, was searching for a way to illustrate that when he approached the team in August.

During the hour-long show, which will air June 11 on the Science Channel, the team's seniors appear for about 25 seconds, reenacting a football game as swirling water -- added during production using computer graphics -- surges around their legs.

"In the time it takes to watch this football game," the narrator says, "Louisiana will lose the equivalent of six football fields of land."

During a screening of the movie at the school yesterday morning, Valsin A. Marmillion, campaign coordinator for America's Wetland, a nonprofit environmental group that helped produce the documentary, told dozens of students that he's hoping for more than help with the film from the future engineers, scientists and politicians.

"The country really does not know this problem exists. But you here at Thomas Jefferson are going to help us tell this story," Marmillion said. "My age group is not going to solve these problems. Your age group is going to deal with them."

America's Wetland is helping to pair Thomas Jefferson students with teenagers at a science magnet school in Louisiana who are studying the problem. The group also is giving the teenagers material they will share with elementary students they tutor. And, sometime in the next few months, football player Andrew Miller, 17, will visit the Mississippi Delta with his coach, Tim O'Reilly, and a Thomas Jefferson teacher.

Milde Waterfall, a Thomas Jefferson English teacher who coordinates a program that integrates biology, English and technology, said study of the Louisiana coast is a natural addition to the curriculum. Students already are studying wetlands in the county's Mason Neck area, and some students mapped a county stream last year.

O'Reilly said that this week, he overheard his players chatting about the issue, bringing up parallels with problems in the Chesapeake Bay and discussing flooding along the Nile River.

At Thomas Jefferson, Miller said, that kind of talk is cool. "We're all big dorks," he said. "Everyone has an interest in some sort of science, and that's why we're here."


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