From the outside, it might have seemed like a typical Monday evening at Gwynn Park High School in Brandywine last month. Most of the players on the football team dutifully waited for Coach Danny Hayes to arrive at the school's weight room, where summer workouts typically begin.
The difference between the Yellow Jackets' offseason workout program and other schools? It's apparent the moment that Hayes arrives -- as soon as he does, the players simply go to work. No cajoling his players to pump iron, no coercing them to run in the steamy weather.
"It's mandatory," said offensive lineman Phillip Taylor, a rising senior who is one of the area's top recruits. "The captains make it mandatory."
In the front of the room on this night was rising senior William Little, expected to start at running back in the fall, and his younger brother Josh, a rising junior who played junior varsity as a freshman. That was no surprise, as William Little was a team leader and among the large crowd of regulars for lifting and conditioning.
Except that on this night, the last people Hayes expected to see in the weight room were William or Josh Little. Earlier that day, the Littles' father, William Jr., had died, one week after suffering his second heart attack.
When Hayes walked into the school building that night, he planned to cancel the session and tell his players to go home. Until he saw the Littles, ready to go.
"I just lost it," said Hayes, who had grown up with William Little Jr. and attended Bowie State with him. "I had to gather myself and get the kids in a classroom. I looked at William and said, 'It's your call whether we work out.' "
It did not take long for Little to respond.
"I'm ready to rock," he said. "I'm ready to work. That is what my father would want."
Little said: "I didn't want to have anything out of the ordinary. I know he would want me to carry on even though he was gone. And I needed to keep my mind off things. I didn't want to sit around the house and mope. Me and my brother decided to come to school and lift."
Hayes said: "I spend a lot of time with my [players], probably more time than their parents spend with them. I know William and I shouldn't have been surprised. It helped me out tremendously that I knew he was okay."
Hayes was not the only one who expected the Littles would want to lift. The Yellow Jackets' players also knew he would not want to alter their schedule.
"He was saying there's nothing between us and getting a state championship," wide receiver Trevor Germany said.
Indeed, expectations are quite high for Gwynn Park, which is saying something considering the team is coming off a Maryland 3A East Region final appearance. The Yellow Jackets went undefeated during the regular season for the second time in three years and have won 45 out of their past 47 regular season games.
Hayes thinks this season's team compares to his 2000 squad that lost in the state final, the only time Gwynn Park has advanced that far. The Yellow Jackets have several players being recruited by colleges, many by brand-name schools. Taylor, at 6 feet 4 and 335 pounds, is the most sought-after of the group, with more than 30 scholarship offers, including Miami, Oklahoma and Florida as well as Maryland, Virginia and Virginia Tech, Hayes said. Taylor said he already has visited Penn State and Ohio State.
However, Taylor is far from the only target when college recruiters swoop in off Branch Avenue. Linebacker Adrian Moten has offers from Maryland and Illinois, among others. Ben Bennett, moving from linebacker to safety, has been offered by Miami of Ohio. Nose guard Brian Benjamin and linebacker Phillip Higgins also have scholarship offers on the table. And Hayes expects it is only a matter of time before wide receiver Quinton McCree is offered a scholarship by Maryland.
Hayes also expects a host of other players to get scholarships; 15 seniors received scholarships last season, 18 the year before.
While the Yellow Jackets hardly needed reinforcements, Hayes thinks he has a pair of impact transfers in linebacker Will Johnson from Douglass and safety Lawrence Johnson from Friendly.
Having so many talented players forces everyone to work harder, Hayes said, in turn leading to terrific participation during the summer, at a time when most high school students have other things to do. It is rare for a player to miss a workout.
"For me, there is nothing I would rather do," Little said. "I want to carry on what my father started, hopefully make it all the way to the NFL, make it to a good college. Everybody else seems pretty determined as well."
Hayes, looking forward to the Sept. 9 season opener at Annapolis, said: "It looks good on paper right now. We haven't played a game yet. We'll find out when that first game hits. We're okay on paper, but that game has to come."