Eastern, Led by Quarterback Phil Hawkins, Finds Its Way Back Onto the Football Field

Quarterback Phil Hawkins serves as a chief recruiter for the Eastern High School Ramblers. He encourages friends, schoolmates and anyone else who thought about playing football to join the team. His efforts are one reason the Ramblers are back on the field this season.
By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 25, 2009

Lured by the promise of free pizza, more than 100 boys piled into seats in the auditorium of Eastern High School one afternoon last May. Principal William Chiselom said a few words about restarting the Eastern football program, which forfeited the 2008 season because of low turnout, then popped in a DVD that played on a projection screen. It showed highlights of rocket-armed Phil Hawkins quarterbacking St. John's as a sophomore in 2007.

"This is what we can have if we can get you all to come out," Chiselom told the audience.

Hawkins, who left St. John's after the 2007 school year, sat quietly in the crowd, as did Leonard Dempsey, a special education teacher who was about to become the next Eastern coach -- if there would be a team. "It fired up a few of them," Dempsey said of the video.

And thus started a pair of revivals -- both of football at Eastern, and of Hawkins's once ascendant football career. Starting that day, Hawkins began serving as a chief recruiter for the Ramblers. He encouraged friends, schoolmates and anyone else who thought about playing football to join the team.

His efforts are one reason the Ramblers are back on the field this season, with 42 players on the roster entering Friday night's home game against Friendship Collegiate. The Ramblers are 1-1 (the victory coming belatedly, via forfeit), but this season is more than wins and losses.

"With Phil, a lot of people look up to him as an athlete around the school," said senior linebacker Trevor Beard, who was a basketball teammate of Hawkins at Eastern, but had never played football until this year. "'If Phil's playing, then I'm playing,' that's what a lot of people think. He's a leader."

Rebirth of a Program

Ten years ago, Eastern played in the Turkey Bowl, the championship game of the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association. Since then, however, interest in the team declined and talented players went to other city schools. In 2007, the Ramblers didn't get the minimum 18 players cleared to participate until their third scheduled game.

Last year, Eastern canceled its football season on Oct. 7, after failing to get the minimum 18. Still, Chiselom, who coached the Ramblers from 1994 to '96, was resolute.

"I wanted to let [prospective players] see the potential that was around them," Chiselom said about that assembly last May. "We said that day that we're going to resurrect the dead. This was the first time I ever heard them not having a football team and I wasn't going to let that happen again. We had to make a serious push."

The numbers were working against Chiselom. Eastern has not admitted a freshman class the past two years, leaving this year's enrollment of 311 primarily consisting of juniors and seniors, according to Chiselom. The 86-year-old building, the oldest of any high school in the District, is closed this year, undergoing a wholesale redesign and set to reopen next year with a health and medical science magnet program. It will then admit its first freshman class since 2007.

Students, teachers and administrators this year are in temporary classrooms set up in the school's parking lot. Behind sits a gleaming year-old football field with artificial turf that hosts the Turkey Bowl every Thanksgiving. It sat mostly unused last season.

"To see that it was a team my 10th grade year -- and then it was gone the next year -- that hurt," Beard said. "No one wanted to play. There was no motivation. No one wanted any school spirit."

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