Arms out, fists clenched, he is coiled one yard off the line, eyeball to eyeball with his man. Under the lights, blonds on sidelines, friends in stands, mothers worrying, fathers remembering, drums syncopating, Scott Wallace is padded and pumped, Annandale High's main Main Hall Commando. Awesome, man, Totally awesome, As soon as the ball is snapped, he's gonna kick some Fairfax High School butt.
Hands on hips, body loose as if his spine's made of jello, Mike Reno is hanging out by the bench, a pair of surgical scissors in his back pocket a chaw of tobacco, sloppy but sweet, swelling his cheek. He is lean but not mean. He is the trainer, as in as an outsider can get and he's waiting to be needed.
"Seeeeet," the Fairfax quarterback barks. "Hut! Hut!"
The quarterback fades back and Wallace is going at him, churning with everything he's got, a red and white Annandale Atom blur. He throws a forearm at the tackle, snakes inside, reaches for the quarterback and . . . Whomp! The fullback lays Scott Wallace flat.
Wallace hops off the field on one leg, grunting with pain, blowing wind. His face, behind his birdcage mask, looks like someone rubbed it in dirt and then raked their fingers down his cheeks.
"Sit down!" Reno yells.
"Leave me alone, man," Wallace says. "I want to watch the game."
"Shut up." Reno pushes Wallace to the bench, pulls down his sock and begins poking his shin with a finger. Wallace winces.
"Ooooow, man, don't touch it!
"Shut up, Wallace-man! I Know what's good for you."
Reno is smiling. He knows what's good for them all. He can tape an ankle in 90 seconds flat, whipping the roll of two-inch adhesive like a radeo cowboy putting the tie on a calf. And hunched before Wallace, he's in position, playing his role.
If you go to Annandale High School, then you know that football's about the coolest thing going, cooler even than dancing "The Crab" at the Saturday night punk-rock sock hop. Atom Football on fall Friday nights in Annandale is like church on Sunday mornings in Jerry Falwell's Lynchburg. It's what you do. But it's one thing to go see the team, quite another to be part of the team.
Mike Reno, 17, can't play football. Bad knees.
So he's the trainer. He can touch but he can't feel and that's good enough for him. The cheerleaders don't decorate his locker with streamers or bake him two dozen chocolate chip cookies on games days, but the Main Hall Commandos will slap him a high-five when they see him, and he has four team managers he can pretty much boss around.
His girlfriend, Tanya Bluhm, is a flag girl with the Marching Atoms. Not quite a cheerleader, but she's still about the cutest around. Button-nosed and bright-eyed. She's been with Mike for a year and one month now, and if she's not in love, she's heavily in like.
Mike Reno does okay. And in this world of adolescent daydreams, where Clearasil is alternated with Gillette Foamy and the most important thing in life is being seen at McDonald's after the game and finding a date for Saturday night, Reno can say he is a little bit awesome, too.
Since the low brick building that houses Annandale High School opened in 1954, the Annandale football Atoms ("awesome because they explode") have run up a record of 228 wins, 72 loses, 10 ties. They were Fairfax County and Northern Virginia Regional champions each five times, Potomac AAA District champs 13 times. They have topped state polls four times, and were number one in the nation in 1978. Eight of their players have been high school All-Americans.
A high-powered football factory. Notre Dame with peach fuzz.
And like Ohio State's Seminole Sol, Annandale has its own superfans, too. Vinnie Becluert, a 38-year-old amateur photographer, once took a week off from his job as a warehouse manager to groom the fields a retired Lorton jail guard, drives the balls, water jugs and first-aid supplies to away games. Ralph Buckley, the school's first principal, has missed only eight games since 1954.
Becky Wagner rushed into coach Bob Hardage's office last Friday, just home from her Super-Saver return flight from Europe, to pick up her $17 reserved season tickets. She and her husband have been coming to the games for 23 years, even though their children are grown, even though all their neighbors' children attend Jefferson High, even though they don't know anyone who plays on the team. "It just got to be a habit, I guess," Wagner says.
A habit. It got that way because Annandale wins. No one comes to high school football games for 23 years, and no school collects $31,000 in gate receipts a season if a team gets stomped every week. There is pressure to win, and in the visitor's locker room at Fairfax High, where the 56 varsity Atoms wait before the game, pressure looms like the Dallas front four. Team captain Steve Stassinos, a block-house of a linebacker who curls his arms down from his shoulders when he walks so his biceps have room to swing, takes DiGel before the games.
The visitors locker room is really the girls' locker room during the week. It has green and pink lockers and a 20-cent sanitary napkin machine on the wall, a little distracting, several players say. They have gone through grueling four-hour practices all week for this one; they know they must beat Fairfax if they are to recover from their opening loss to Woodson and win the district title.
Andre Jones is sitting on a wooden bench, helmet in lap, neck buried in shoulder pads, eyes fixed straight ahead. Senior, No. 32, six feet, 175 pounds. Tailback. Gotta win this one, man, he is thinking. Spin off blocks run like hell, hold the ball, score a couple of touchdowns. He pictures himself in silent slow motion, juking and bobbing around Fairfax Rebels. Annandale touchdown, Jones! His friend Jude Pago is picking up Andre's girlfriend, who goes to Jefferson, and bringing her to the game. Gotta look good.
Tim Neary's cleated black shoe is tapping. Sophomore, No. 30, 5-foot-10, 165. Last year, he was a star on the freshman team. Against Stuart High he had 110 yards and two touchdowns in his first two carries. On varsity this year, he works special teams. Release outside and get my butt downfield, spread to cover, stay in my lane, down the ball inside the 10, watch my blindside. When Neary was a little kid, he idolized the varsity players. Now he is one.
Wallace is on his back on a bench, staring up at glaring fluorescent lights that make the room look onedimensional and flat. Senior, No. 87, 6-foot-1, 170. Defensive end. Face carved and handsome, body triangular. He bench presses 250 pounds. Those guys are going to be monsters, man. But Mom had a premonition last night: I pick up a fumble, run 99 yards, touchdown. I'll do "The Crab" in the end zone. It'll be totally awesome, man. His yellow Dodge Charger (license: MY ROD) is parked outside his house. After the game, I'll find me a Josita and we'll go for a ride.
Mike Reno is slouched against a wall. Senior, no number, his girlfriend, Tanya, thinks he's too skinny so he has two cheeseburgers, large fries and a shake when he goes to McDonald's. He's Trying not to think of anything. When I go on the field, somebody's made a bad mistake. I hope nobody gets it too bad.
Coach Hardage steps into the center of the room. His team gathers around him, beaming a certain reverence, as if they're about to hear words from a man who is Jesus Christ, Vince Lombardi and John Lennon rolled into one and carrying a clipboard. Hardage quarterbacked the Majors of Mount Vernon High and then the Indians of the College of William and Mary, and has the slope-shouldered stance of a man who has been taking snaps from center since he was knee-high to a boys club running back.
He's been Annandale coach for 16 years. In his office, he is hesitant, quiet, always hooking his index finger into his shirt collar to pull it away from his neck. On the field, he gets riled and throws down his hat and his clipboard and kicks the dirt. All at once
His voice is a megaphone, reading rapid-fire from his clipboard check-list of football readiness. This is the three-minute Inspirational Speech:
Coach: " . . . Mistakes, gentlemen, do not make them. Stay alert. Eleven men hustling at all times. Protect the passer and punter and then cover. Be aggressive, gentlemen, do not get out-hit. Rush the passer with your hands high. Be rough-and-ready at all times. Poise, gentlemen."
Team: "CHAMPIONS DON'T CHOKE!"
They burst out the door and down the hill two-by-two to the playing field. Arm pads, leg pads, thigh pads, shoulder pads. Fifty-six padded islands of psychological motivation. They are so psyched, so ready to crush the Revels that Andre Jones, growling at the opponents instead of looking where he's going, steps on Steve Stassinos' foot and almost knocks him over.
Tubas pumping, cymbals crashing, snares rattling, Marching Atoms music mixes with the shrill cheers of the fans and washes around the bowl-shaped stadium, over which hangs crescent moon. Lined neatly in white, the green field glows under the lights. Cheering Atoms behind the team bench, on the cinder track, shake their pom pons, cheeks as rosey red as their short, pleated skirts: Be Aggressive, Be Aggressive, B-E-A-G-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E!!!! The air is woven with the scents of hot dogs and hot chocolate, tobacco and Shalimar. White confetti, launched from the stands floats to earth like bleached leaves of fall.
A Cyclone fence separates the cheerleaders from the metal bleachers, packed on the Annandale side to about 500 capacity. Annandale principal James Finch is in the bleachers. Wearing red plaid toward his team warming up on the field. "They're part of a successful operation, part of an organization that isn't easy but makes them reach down and give all they've got," he says, words turning to vapor in the cold. "They're part of something that makes adults of them."
On the field, they are adults. Serious and inspired. Motivated and coordinated, last Friday night's winners, 27-15.
In school, they are Main Hall Commandos.
They arrive a half-hour early each day to hang out in the hall by the office. Leaning against the wall is Wallace. On one side is Jones, on the other is Brian Whitehouse, an offensive guard with hair so red it is rumored to glow in the dark back seat of a car. Former varsity tackle Tod Veazie, who Jones says quit the team this year so he could grow a beard, is there too, along with Neary and a few others. They are all wearing their school uniforms: corduroy pants, Nike Tennis shoes, T-shirts.
Jude Pago is with them. He doesn't play football, but he is included because he is the biggest football booster in the schoool, a cheerleader without portfolio. Pago even has the honor of being one of the coaches of the girls' Powder Puff football team.He would have been a Powder Puff cheerleader, too, but boy cheerleaders were stricken from the Powder Puff agenda a few years back when one of them showed up at the game with nothing beneath his skirt.
Students flow by in waves: Baby Freshmen, Cool Sophomores, Punk Juniors and Awesome Seniors. The Commandos don't converse, they comment. Fragments jotted in a spiral notebook mind:
"Hey, Mr. Cool, Mr. Cool," Whitehouse calls to a boy with blow-dried hair. "You been to the disco lately?"
"We know that was you the other night behind the 7-Eleven with the windows fogged up," Wallace says to a girl as she walks by.
"Hey, Bonato," says Neary. "I hear you beat up a washing machine on Saturday night."
A senior girl stops to hang with the Commandos for a few minutes. She is chic in her high fashion, pegleg overalls and high heels. She knows all the players. She thinks they're fun because they're crazy.
You know, like at the last sock hop when Jay German, defensive tackle, took Mike Reno in his arms and danced with him: Or at Springfield Mall last Saturday night when John Fletcher did "The Crab" in front of the movie screen while "An American Werewolf in London" was playing.
And this girl, like the others who stop by in the morning, books clutched to their chests, heads bent attentively foreward, to smile beatifically while the Commandos insult them, says that "this time of year, everybody thinks the players are studs. It's like, 'Oh, wow, you're going out with a football player.
"The guys are a little two-faced, like in the locker room they tell all the other players what they got off the girls over the weekend." But, she says, her mascaraed eyes narrowing a bit, "It's better to have your name come up sometimes than not at all."
The bell rings and Reno walks Tanya past the Commandos, pausing a moment to get the high-five from Wallace. And when he gets his five, that smile comes again, big and broad and exposing flakes of snuff between his teeth. He is recognized by the guys whose ankles he tapes and whose cuts he cleans. He is included.
"Those guys are idolized in the football season," Reno says. "Everyone wants to be popular, that's the main thing with high school, being popular. I'm not saying I want to be popular, I just want to be myself.
"But I have friends on the football team," Reno says. "So I know what it's about."