By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 12:44 AM
Less than 24 hours before kickoff of the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association football championship, a Dunbar-H.D. Woodson matchup became finalized Wednesday when acting D.C. Public Schools chancellor Kaya Henderson denied an appeal by Ballou to regain its spot in the game.
A DCPS investigation, prompted by a Dunbar protest last week, determined that ". . . a Ballou player's grade was improperly changed. If the grade hadn't been changed, the player would not have been eligible to participate in the playoff game against Dunbar."
Under DCIAA rules, Henderson said that any team that uses an ineligible player must forfeit that game. The Knights won the DCIAA semifinal, 35-31, on Nov. 13. Ballou appealed the ruling Monday on the grounds that the protest came after the midseason deadline specified by DCIAA rules.
The DCIAA championship, also known as the Turkey Bowl, is set for 11 a.m. Thursday at Eastern High School.
Ballou Coach Moe Ware said he was disappointed by the decision, but "didn't expect [to win the appeal], truthfully." He added that he was most angry about how the investigation began, with a leak of a student's transcript that showed ineligible grades.
"I can't coach in this city anymore," Ware said. "The cronyism, the nepotism, the connections people use to get whatever they want is ridiculous."
Dunbar Coach Craig Jefferies said word of the decision trickled out around school through text messages from coaches to players Wednesday afternoon. The Crimson Tide (9-2) had been practicing the past 11 days despite losing the semifinal.
"A lot of kids didn't believe it at first," Jefferies said. "We've been waiting for this and we weren't sure if something else was going to happen. It's been draining. You get to the point where you just get numb. But I just believe that what we did was right."
Ballou Principal Rahman Branch said Tuesday evening after the appeal hearing that the investigation "was not a grade-change issue." Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful Wednesday.
"Whatever the principal said about this not being about grade-changing is 100 percent wrong," said a DCPS source familiar with the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because DCPS employees were not allowed to comment. "It's all about the improper grade change. Everything in that report was about the grade change."
The process put H.D. Woodson (8-3) in an especially tough spot. Coaches from all three schools talked during the week about the importance of planning and preparation, and how football is unlike other sports in terms of game-planning required. Ballou is known for its prolific passing offense; Dunbar relies more on its ground game.
"It's been very difficult for me, my coaches and the kids," said Woodson Coach Greg Fuller, whose team knew all along that it would be playing on Thanksgiving. "My kids are messed up, mad and upset, but they're hanging in there. We've just tried our best to keep them focused, but it's tough when you don't know who you're playing. One team throws a lot and the other team runs a lot."
Woodson beat Ballou (8-2), 22-20, earlier in the season. The Warriors did not play Dunbar.
The decision culminated a chaotic week leading up to one of the DCPS's showcase athletic events. Upward of 5,000 spectators pack Eastern High School each Thanksgiving morning, in what is as much a DCIAA homecoming as it is a football game. And while fans from the participating teams dominate the crowd, the circumstances surrounding Dunbar's presence Thursday will surely only add to the intrigue.
"To take us out and let [Ballou] back in at this point would have made us the laughingstock of the nation," Crimson Tide Athletic Director Johnnie Walker said. "People are crying for this league to be cleaned up. I really believe this is a step in the right direction."