The early years were trying times for the Lorton Lions. Plagued by constant overturns and inexperienced players, the prison football team lost many of its games.
When the Lions lost a league championship in 1973, the team floundered. But now the Lions are showing new signs of life.
Saturday the team capped off an undefeated season by beating the Stonewall Athletic Club 12-7 for the D.C. Amateur League Championship in their second year in the league.
In the process of building a winning team, the Lions have helped both the men who play and other prisoners relieve some of the anxiety of being confined, according to immates.
The team was formed in 1972 shortly after Wayne Wilkins was hired as Lorton's athletic director. Wilkins, a graduate of North Texas State University and coach of the Lions, applied for membership in the Mid-Atlantic Football League, sandlot ball, that year and was admitted.
In 1973, the team ended the season with a 10-1 record and barely missed the championship.
When the Mid-Atlantic League folded in 1977, Wilkins promptly applied for membership in the more stable and prestigious D.C. Amateur Football League, which has been in operation since 1952. Surprisingly, the team was received with open arms.
"We were delighted to have Lorton as a member of our league," said Commissioner James Lloyd. "After all, they are basically an extension of the community, and our feeling was that they would add another dimension to our league."
The Lions finished their first season in the league at 3-7 because, as Wilkins said, they were "inexperienced, nervous and without a quarterback."
A year of experience and the arrival of Donald Hatch at the institution turned the program around. Hatch, a former Cardozo High School football star, gave the team the missing ingredient necessary to win.
"We always played tough defense," Wilkins said. "But our offense never seemed to be able to put it together. When Hatch showed up, he immediately gave us leadership, poise, and experience. The players naturally gravitated toward him. They looked to him for the big plays."
In Saturday's game, Hatch's skill and the team's improved confidence, showed when the Lions jumped on the larger and more experienced Stonewalls, took the opening kickoff and marched on with a methodical 65-yard, 14-play drive that lasted more than eight minutes. Hatch capped the effort with a one-yard drive to give Lorton a 6-0 lead.
The early lead sent the 500 spectators into a frenzy. The festive crowd of inmates' families and friends, along with a sprinkling of guards, generated high-powered enthusiasm from start to finish. The setting more closely resembled a college or high school homecoming than a game played inside the walls of a penitentiary. The play-by-play announcer (an inmate) played disco sounds from his platform against the back-drop of a prison tower.
When Hatch hit Tony Brown with his tenth touchdown pass of the year, the crowd joined the Lorton team in their victory chant.
But the celebration was short-lived and some anxious moments followed when the Stonewalls scored late in the fourth quarter to make the score 12-7. The crowd became even more edge when the Stonewalls recovered an onside kick.
Milton Wallace preserved the victory and the championship, however, when he intercepted a pass in the end zone and ran out the clock.
"This championship means a lot to the whole Lorton community, and we are a community," said Hatch, who is soon to come up for parole and has coaches throughout the league soliciting his services when he gets out.
"It has served as a unifying factor here. It has given everyone here something to be proud of, an accomplishment.
"In Lorton, all a man's thoughts lie in the streets with his loved ones and family. That's what is so gratifying about the whole thing. To be able to have the community come down here and partake in a successful endeavor without incident has to be encouraging.
Wilkins, who arranges entertainment and organizes athletic programs for the D.c. dEpartment of Corrections, agreed with Hatch.
"Since we started winning, our following has markedly increased," he said. We've always had a few die-hards from the beginning but now everyone seems to be pumped up about the team, even the guards."
Wilkins admits that he spends more than the normal 40-hour week working at Lorton. So what is the incentive?
"I enjoy what I do," he answered unhesitatingly. "Anyone working in a penal institution will tell you that the residents are very perceptive. They know when you are sincere or not. That's why it becomes more than a job. You have to become personally involved to let them know you really care."