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

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.

"We actually find this process levels the playing field," Powell said. Schools "are encouraged to [recruit]. Schools should want to be competitive."

But schools frequently allow students in well after the lottery's Feb. 28 deadline. In the summer of 2006, after former Coolidge assistant Moe Ware was named head football coach at Ballou, nearly a dozen of his players, including four who later signed division I-A scholarships, transferred to the Southeast school. The Knights wound up winning the school's first Turkey Bowl, in large part because of that influx of talent.

Last May, Vaughn Jones, who coached M.M. Washington's boys' basketball team to its first appearance in the DCIAA championship game, was named head coach at Coolidge. His former players had a choice to make.

"Once he announced it, [the players] had a meeting to see what we wanted to do," said junior Derrick Washington, M.M. Washington's leading scorer last season, who lives in Cardozo's zone. "Coach Jones was the reason I went to M.M., and he's the reason I went to Coolidge."

Washington, plus the rest of the Yellow Jackets' starting five, approached Coolidge Principal L. Nelson Burton over the summer and asked if there were spots available for this year.

"The principal told me, 'I want a winning team,' " Washington recalled. " 'We're going to build a winning program with you guys as the core.' "

Burton said: "For me and most of my colleagues, if you want to come, we'll let you come. If you think your child will get a better education [by transferring], shouldn't you get that opportunity to go there? . . . If an athlete sees an opportunity to go somewhere where there's a track record of getting kids into [college], whether it's athletic or academic, and if I'm a parent, I'm sending my child to that school."

All five students are now enrolled at Coolidge.

Eastern's Marshall said it would be easy to make a move like that. While an eighth- grader at Francis Junior High, he said, he was recruited by coaches at H.D. Woodson, Coolidge and Roosevelt, but he decided to come to Eastern because his parents went there.

"Everyone wants to be on a championship team," he said. "I know it's easy to say, 'I'll leave Eastern and go play at Dunbar,' but I can't do that. The one thing that keeps me here is I'm loyal."

Marshall's is a dying sentiment. From 1977 to '97, Willie Stewart's Eastern and Anacostia teams went to 13 Turkey Bowls, winning seven. He hasn't been back since.

"The last year we won the championship [1995], I had kids who were with me as 10th-graders, 11th-graders and 12th-graders," Stewart said. "Now, kids leave and follow the championships, and they don't care if they play. They'd rather go to Dunbar or Woodson and sit, and get a [championship] ring and jacket."

After serving as an assistant at Oxon Hill, where he said the varsity and junior varsity football teams had 40 players apiece, Paris Adon took over Spingarn's struggling team before this season. There were five players at his first practice on Aug. 8, and Adon wasn't able to get his roster up to 20 until the Green Wave's second scheduled game Sept. 8.

"Open enrollment is designed to keep the upper schools up and the lower schools down," Adon said. "What would motivate a kid to come to Spingarn over Dunbar?"

Dunbar, as well as Ballou, Coolidge, McKinley, Roosevelt and Wilson, have another edge on the city's other schools. Over the summer, each received a $4 million facilities facelift, including a new FieldTurf playing surface.

"How are we going to recruit against that?" said Cardozo Athletic Director Bobby Richards, who coached the football team to a Turkey Bowl title in 1996 and returned to the sidelines this season, after his program won just one game between October 2004 and the end of last season. "We're struggling to rebuild. It's going to be that much tougher trying to get kids when we don't have that. When are we going to get what the other schools got?"

School officials say all DCPS high schools eventually will get new fields and athletic facilities.

When teams with full rosters face squads struggling to field teams, the resulting blowouts please few participants.

"I know the league isn't balanced, especially in my sport," said H.D. Woodson's girls' basketball coach Frank Oliver, whose team has advanced to back-to-back City Title games, and seven since 1997. "Those games don't help anybody. We had a game . . . and it was 47-0 in the first quarter. They had no business being out there with us. They were on a junior high level. Games like that expose the problems of our situation."

Some coaches, though, think competition for students could bring out the best in everyone involved.

"The coaches have to put the onus on themselves," Coolidge's Jones said. "So what if you only have five kids? Go up to kids [at school] and say, 'Come play for me.' When they say, 'Well, I don't know how to play,' you tell them, 'I'll teach you.' "

Dunbar football coach Craig Jefferies has embraced recruiting since he took over in 1996.

"Good coaches use the rules and what's available to them," he said. "I've taken advantage of the open enrollment program, but everything that's available to me is available to everybody else. Some are being resourceful and some aren't.

"You have to get out and talk to the junior high coaches. That's just the way the system works. Those throwback coaches don't recruit and [run] offseason conditioning as part of their program." Said Cardozo's Richards, who graduated from Eastern in 1967: "When I was in high school, there was no talking about going to a school outside your neighborhood. It's become a league of haves and have-nots."

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