'Everyone Is a Free Agent,' Not Everyone Is Happy

Eastern junior Terrance Barnes had to sit out the Ramblers' long-awaited opener because he had not practiced the requisite five days.
Eastern junior Terrance Barnes had to sit out the Ramblers' long-awaited opener because he had not practiced the requisite five days. (Photos By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Five weeks after the start of football practice, Terrell Marshall hoped this would be the day he could finally tackle someone.

The Eastern High School senior arrived on the practice field, but saw only 13 players joining him in helmets and pads. Five others stood on the sideline, waiting to get medical clearance to participate. Some players gave up, depressed by a seemingly hopeless situation -- Eastern could muster only the personnel for seven-on-seven drills and special teams work that seldom goes beyond reinforcing fundamentals. Three days later, the Ramblers were still unable to dress the minimum 18 players, as required by the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association, and had to cancel their second straight game on Sept. 14 against Coolidge.

Meantime, across town at Dunbar, which has roughly the same number of students registered this fall, the football team was preparing for its third game with a varsity roster of 45, plus 35 more on the junior varsity.

There's nothing in the water in Shaw that makes teenagers want to play football. Many of the Crimson Tide's players took advantage of a D.C. Public Schools provision that allows a student to seek a transfer to any school within the system for any reason, regardless of the proximity to the student's home. The result is a league so unbalanced that teams in many sports at several schools struggle to fill rosters, and lopsided scores are hardly uncommon.

"Every day, I wake up and I come out here and dream we've got 20 guys," said Marshall, a four-year varsity player. "I don't care if you're a ninth-grader. We just need people. It's a hard thing watching all these teams . . . and they've got 40, 50 people out there, and we're looking for 18."

Since 2000, only four of the 11 DCIAA schools that have varsity football programs have sent teams to the league's annual championship game, the Turkey Bowl, on Thanksgiving. From 1979 to 1999, 10 different schools played in the Turkey Bowl, including six at least three times apiece.

The trend toward perennial powers doesn't exist only in football. Over the past decade, DCPS high school athletic programs have accelerated active recruitment from the city's middle and junior high schools -- and occasionally, other high schools -- to build dynastic programs that are among the best in the Washington area. Whether schools seek chemists or quarterbacks, recruiting among public schools is widely accepted by the school system's central office, school administrators and students targeting the best chance for college scholarships or a championship.

Eastern football coach Burnell Irby, who led his team to the DCIAA final in 1999, said he's coaching a much different kind of football these days.

"I have so few kids, I'm teaching them how to put on equipment," said the coach, who played at Theodore Roosevelt High in the late 1970s. "Things went in cycles [30 years ago]. Someone would have a good team for two or three years, and after the senior class graduates, they'd have to regroup. It doesn't go in cycles anymore."

Eastern finally played its first game last Friday, when it was able to dress 20 players. The Ramblers lost, 55-14, to Cardozo, another team that began practice wondering if it would have enough players. The Clerks dressed only 25.

"If everyone went to their neighborhood school," said Jackie Johnson, an Eastern assistant for nine years, "the demographics would be the total opposite of what they are right now. I'm not saying we'd be on top, but it would be much more balanced. Right now, everyone is a free agent."

Each February, the DCPS Office of Student and School Support Services accepts applications for students in all grades seeking spots in schools outside of their zoned boundary. Those applications are placed in a lottery, held March 15, and spots are awarded randomly based upon the available slots submitted by each school. According to Diane E. Powell, assistant superintendent for the department, 4,827 students applied for out-of-boundary transfers last year, and 1,234 were granted changes.

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