Darkness was quickly settling on the Eastern High School football field as the Interhigh League champs snapped to the military-like commands of Rambler coach Willie Stewart.
The usually soft-spoken former Dunbar High player had several drills he wanted his 60 or so players to work on, and time was getting short. His field, like most other public schools fields in D.C. has no lights.
In the stands, several student on-lookers quietly discussed the new Washington Redskins and sipped cool drinks. At one end of the almost grassless field, a group of junior high students engaged in their own version of tackle football, each professing the speed of Tony Dorsett, moves of O. J. Simpson and power of Earl Campbell.
But Stewart's attention was riveted on his team. The only other sound that teached him was the chant of youngsters yelling "Defense, Defense." It is that phase of the game that has carried Eastern to two consecutive Interhigh League championships. And it is that phase Stewart hopes will earn him another title.
"We should have the best defense in the city," said James Price, a 5-foot-6, 155 (soaking wet) defensive end. "As for practicing in the dark. We're used to it. Football is supposed to be fun, and playing it in the dark is just that."
Stewart's idea of fun is shutting out opponents every Friday afternoon. Price, along with defensive specialists John Chesley, Reggie Montogomery and Sean Majors, should prevent too many folks from crossing the goal line.
During the last two seasons, the Ramblers have either shut out or held opponents to six points or less 15 times.
"You have to remember we lost seven of our eight non-league games both years," Stewart said. "The players were about to lynch me. They couldn't understand we were using those games to get ready for the league games."
This year, there are no complaints. The Ramblers believe in Stewart's formula: learn during the non-league games and crush the opposition in the league.
Of course, one might wonder what Stewart has on his mind, starting mighty mites like Price at end.
"He's so small, people can't block him," Stewart explained. "I might worry if a team has a 6-4 tight end. But then, I'll worry about the end, not Price. He's the most aggressive player on our team. Loves to hit people."
Price, nicknamed "Football," probably for the shape of his head rather than his considerable zest for the game, is the first one to arrive for practice and the last one to leave.
A key member of the special teams last year, the junior loves nothing better than to fly downfield, dive through a wedge of would-be blockers and nail the kick returner in his tracks.
He did just that in the opening kick-off of last year's title game against Dunbar (Eastern won, 13-0).
"I hit The Juice (Dunbar's Freddie Wagoner)," Price recalled. "That RFK grass felt good. I hit him and did a little dance."
Size never worries Price. He began playing football at eight years old, and was always the smallest player on the field.
"I depend on my quickness," he said. "I'm not worried about anyone running over me. I can do the job."
While Stewart is concentrating on his defense, across town Rooselvelt Rough Riders coach Jim Tillerson is tuning up his high-powered offense for a run at the title that has eluded him for the last two years.
Both years, the favored Rough Riders finished the season holding their price to the title game at RFK Stadium the next year in the other.
"This year we plan to make up for those years," warned Wendelle Battle, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound defensive tackle muscle machine. "We're seniors now, and we want to go out a winner."
Two seasons ago, Roosevelt was blanked by Eastern (13-0) in the title game. That loss was especially frustrating since Roosevelt had pasted Eastern, 22-0, earlier in the season.
Last year, Roosevelt allowed The Juice (Wagoner) to break up two long runs and eventually lost to Dunbar, 16014, finishing behind Dunbar's Crimson. Tide in the West Division.
Consistency has been Roosevelt's trademark. In the last 10 years, the Northwest Washington school has tacked six division and two Interhigh championship flags on its gymnasium walls.
Coach Tillerson, a master strategist and organizer, has already expressed his desire to return to RFK stadium, and Wendelle Battle, Derrick Battle (no relation), Mike Bigalow and Co. don't plan to disappoint their coach.
Unless some unforeseen bogyman or a Coolidge team, being rebuilt and coached by the irrepressible Sam Taylor, get in the way, look for Roosevelt to serve Eastern for an appetizer Thanksgiving morning when the final game tells the tale.
Wendell Battle, a senior co-captain who leads by his deeds rather than his mouth, says the Rough Riders are not seeking any revenge but just the title.
"One team we have had back luck against is Dunbar," Battle said. "We would like to beat them this year. But then, we want to beat everyone. We think we can."
Another team talking title is Bell. Yes, Bell. One of three vocational schools in the league, the Vocats have not won a game in . . . well, that many years. The last four seasons, Bell has posted a 1-27-2 record and been outscored 926-55. Its sole victory was a forfeit two years ago.
Both ties were against Phelps another vocational school. The last 6-6 debacle lasted so long, the folks who dared watch had time to go home, have dinner and return for the fourth quarter. Both teams committed every football travesty in the world and took turns moving backwards. Fourth and 45 yards to go situations were not uncommon.
Anthony Jones, a senior wide receiver, says things will be different this year.
"It's a crying shame to lose every game," the 5-10, 170-pound Jones said. "It's frustrating at times, but football is supposed to be fun. That's the way I look at it. It would be nice to win one game, just ONE.
"One thing," he continued optimistically, "you get to play a lot." "Talk about going both ways (offense and defense).Last year, I went five ways. But it's fun. Teams score a lot on us, but they don't take advantage of us."
Scores like 71-0, 50-0, 39-0, and on and on and on might indicate otherwise.
Because many of the athletes at Bell (enrollment about 200) have summer jobs related to their trades, Coach Ed Torrence doesn't begin practice until the week before the school opens. Other league teams open Aug. 15. To prevent injuries, Bell doesn't usually play many scrimmages or non-league games.
Two years ago, the Vocats played their final game with only 16 players, and two of them were injured. The school practices across the street at Lincoln Playground, which Jones fondly referred to as the "Rock Bowl."
"Yeah, lots of rocks, but you get used to it," he said. "Tradition used to be good here, and we would like to bring some of it back. (Bell was the top in the Interhigh League in the '60s.) It isn't easy, though."
Torrence has convinced his players that scores aren't important.
"People forget scores quickly," said Torrence who in his four years at Bell has not tasted victory. "A 7-6 loss is like a 43-0 loss."
Jones, who remembers that many of his teammates didn't show up for the team's 30-6 final loss last year, has worked out a lot on his own. There have been days when the offenseive line took the day off to play basketball or the secondary went to the movies.
"This year, we're going to get it together and shock some people," Jones predicted. "The fever is going to hit us. Once we win a game, we'll take off. But we have to win that first one. And I believe we can."
The young man has lots of heart, and probably believes George Allen will return to coach the Bullets, or rather, Redskins, too.