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T.C. Williams will host its first night football game on Friday night

By James Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2010; 12:58 AM

Since it opened its doors in 1965, T.C. Williams has won 16 state titles in six sports, mirrored the personality and diversity of the city of Alexandria as its lone public high school and inspired the 2000 film "Remember the Titans," which chronicled the school's 1971 state football title run amid the turmoil of a federal desegregation order.

But unlike every other public high school in Northern Virginia, T.C. Williams has never hosted a Friday night football game on its home field.

Until now.

On Friday night, T.C. - as the school is affectionately known - will play under the lights on its campus just off King Street.

The lights will be rented - they were trucked in from Iowa this week - and dismantled once the game is over. Whether the school ever gets permanent lights is open to question: Many residents around the school have long opposed the idea and Alexandria's mayor, himself a T.C. graduate, says installing them would be too costly.

But for one glorious evening, T.C. and its fans - who will be joined by veterans of the 1971 state championship squad - will experience a Friday night football game when the Titans take on South County .

"I have never played a night game on my home turf," said Titans senior linebacker Tevin Isley, a three-year varsity player. "So this is a big opportunity."

To illuminate the field, T.C. Williams contracted the services of an Iowa-based lighting company, which drove five sets of 53-foot lighting fixtures disassembled on a flatbed truck. On Thursday, a two-man crew set up the lights.

To cover the $24,000 cost of the lights, the school and its students have been on a marketing blitz, posting signs across the city and selling tickets. Nearly 500 VIP tickets - which guarantee a tailgate party, a commemorative T-shirt, early-admission seating and a meet-and-greet with members of the 1971 team - are for sale for $30.

Another 2,400 tickets at the regular price of $5 are also for sale, with students getting the first crack at them last week. As of Thursday evening, 300 of the VIP tickets and more than 1,000 of the regular admission seats had been sold, Athletic Director Steve Colantuoni said.

"I'm banking on the fact this is such a stir and exciting that these people will come out," said Colantuoni, who graduated from T.C. Williams in 1974. "I've heard from people I haven't seen in over 30 years. They've talked about coming back just for a one-night thing."

When T.C. Williams was built 45 years ago along King Street, the city and residents in the neighboring communities agreed that no lights be erected at the football stadium. For most of its first four seasons, the school played its home football games at the lighted, 14,900-seat stadium at nearby George Washington High, one of the city's three high schools. Francis C. Hammond also played there.

But in 1969, Alexandria public schools cancelled night football games citing low attendance, vandalism and racial tension, according to an Oct. 22, 1969 Washington Post article. That forced T.C. Williams to install bleachers at its football field and play home games exclusively on weekend afternoons.

Two years later, following an effort to racially balance the schools, all three high schools merged into T.C. Williams. The same year, the football team won the Virginia state title, which later became the subject of the film.

Through the years, the ban on lights remained, even when a new $100-million school was constructed in 2007 along with a 3,000-seat football stadium equipped with a turf field.

But filling that venue on Saturdays has been a struggle. An average home game draws between 800 and 900 people, according to Colantuoni. The Titans' seven Virginia AAA Patriot District opponents, however, report an average home attendance of more than 1,700 people, according to a survey of athletic directors.

"A lot of people wouldn't take off from their Saturdays to come watch the football games," said Linwood Donald, a 1998 T.C. Williams graduate who played football his junior and senior years. "At the time, we weren't winning a lot of games, so we weren't getting a lot of support anyway. But for you not to have your home crowd cheering you on, you know how it feels," he added.

T.C. Williams, the state's second largest public high school with more than 2,800 students, isn't alone in densely populated Alexandria. Episcopal, Bishop Ireton and St. Stephen's/St. Agnes - all private schools - also do not have lights for their football fields. Across the region, Prince George's County is the only other public school system without lights at all of its schools' football fields; only three play night games.

Yet when Episcopal, which is located less than a half-mile away, rented temporary lights for a football game in 2008, officials at T.C. Williams took notice. "Once we saw that it could be done with portable lighting, we decided we could too," Colantuoni said.

Some consider Friday night a trial run for the possibility of permanent lights.

"I know if this is successful - I know it will - I personally want it, as others do," said Alexandria Mayor William Euille, a 1968 T.C. graduate.

"But I know the capital costs of putting lights into the school is not in the budget."

Some neighbors, long opposed to permanent lights because of concerns about traffic, noise and safety, met with school officials this week to discuss what they consider to be a one-time event. T.C. Williams did not need permission for Friday because the lights are only temporary.

"We're not intending to stand in the way of having a special event," said Carter Flemming, who has lived adjacent to the school since 1986 and sits on the board of directors for the Seminary Hill Association, a civic group that represents the surrounding neighborhood. "Every school is entitled to do this. But if this is a great success, we don't want them to think, 'As long as we can get someone to underwrite this, we can do this every Friday night.' "

By game time, school officials are anticipating a sellout. But whether the school will be allowed to do this again or even seek permanent lights is unclear.

"I don't know if it'll ever come back again," Colantuoni said. "But for one night, I think its exciting."

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