Moving the Chains at Oak Hill

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 23, 2006

Terrell McDonald shuffled toward the van, a rusted chain clanking against his polished Nike cleats. With no mirror available, the 16-year-old had stood before his reflection in a window in the gymnasium of the Oak Hill youth detention center, meticulously putting on his uniform. He wore a black do-rag and an Everlast undershirt that hugged his torso. He had tucked a folded white towel into the front of his football pants, and he compulsively ran his hands across the fabric to smooth wrinkles.

The shackles ruined his outfit, which bothered Terrell more than the chafe of metal around his hands, chest and ankles. "How can I get my shine on wearing this?" he said. "Y'all are making me look like a clown on my big day."

Terrell climbed all the way to the back of the van, surrounded by guards and teammates. He had not left the District's juvenile detention facility in Laurel since January, but he'd earned this trip. Terrell captained an Oak Hill football team fractured by neighborhood rivalries and a revolving roster. He had threatened to quit several times during the season, sometimes persevering only for this moment: the team's first road game, a D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association junior varsity semifinal played earlier this month at H.D. Woodson.

Two days earlier, Terrell's football coach, Rodney Henderson, had pulled the captain aside to emphasize the significance of this trip -- and to ask for help. Oak Hill, long regarded as one of the most dangerous and decrepit juvenile centers in the nation, had rarely entrusted its offenders with this kind of opportunity. That Terrell and 18 teammates traveled anywhere represented a shaky step in a new effort to emphasize rehabilitation.

"If anybody runs, if anybody tries to escape, there goes everything we worked for," Henderson told Terrell. "There goes this football program. There goes trust. If anybody runs, we'll come back to Oak Hill and it's going to be like coming back to straight-up jail. Don't let that happen."

The van drove past Oak Hill's decaying red housing units, past two 25-foot fences of snarled barbed wire, past several hundred acres of overgrown land, and out past the strip malls and housing developments of Laurel. Terrell stared out the window. Even fast-food restaurants fascinated him. And as the van approached Woodson in Northeast Washington, Terrell stood up from his seat and issued a command that sounded more like a plea.

Don't run, he said. We've got too much to lose.

Unconventional Strategies

During 20 years spent coaching football to juvenile offenders, Henderson, 46, has witnessed his share of disasters. The 2006 season started with many of them.

The coach suspended three starters after they beat up another resident during a fight between rival neighborhoods. The team ran short on equipment, with only 23 jerseys and 17 pairs of football socks for about 30 players who regularly attended practice. Players from rival Anacostia housing projects occasionally refused to block for each other.

A week into the season, Henderson gathered his players, ages 14 to 18, for practice and told them to form a circle. This, he explained, was The Pit. Any two players who had a beef, Henderson said, could step into the middle of the circle with their pads on and battle over a football for as long as they liked. "Take your anger and frustration and release it on the field," Henderson told them. "I'm not dealing with this territory violence, homey thing." More than a dozen players rotated in and out of the circle, wrestling for almost an hour.

Coaching at Oak Hill requires unconventional strategies, Henderson said. He has worked as a managing officer, athletic director and football coach at Oak Hill since 1986, but he hardly looks hardened. He wears academic glasses, and his long dreadlocks frame a handsome face. His coworkers call him a pretty boy; his players call him Bones, an old high school nickname. Henderson happily responds to either.

Henderson teaches a version of football unencumbered by complicated plays and boring strategy. At Oak Hill, even fourth and 22 is what Henderson calls a "go-for-broke down." The Tigers never punt. They run 10 to 15 trick plays a game -- double reverses, halfback passes, flea-flickers and whatever else Henderson whimsically diagrams on the sideline. Still, the Tigers have never finished a season with a losing record.

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