In the cool of autumn Saturday evenings, the dusty athletic field of Spingarn High School in Northeast Washington comes alive with the exuberance of football fans as devoted and intent on the play as any Super Bowl crowd.
The object of their excitement and their loyalty is the Stonewall, a rough and ready semiprofessional team from Southeast that has been reenacting the seasonal ritual since just after World War II.
Men with flashy nicknames like Duckjuice and Smiley, dressed in the Stonewall uniforms of red, black and white, do battle under the spotlights with out-of-town teams while the bleachers take on an atmosphere resembling that of a college homecoming celebration. While home-cooked chicken wings are shared and stories of old times exchanged, eyes remain fixed on "the Wall."
Founded in 1946, the Stonewalls have grown into a community and cultural institution. Besides the football team, the athletic group includes softball and basketball teams and a benevolent association that sponsors picnics and dances to raise money for current or former players who are hospitalized or who have lost a relative.
Though many of the players were on their high school or college football teams and harbor dreams of someday being drafted by the pros--several have tried out for The Redskins and the Federals--most are just football addicts playing out their goal line fantasies.
Three-year Stonewall player Kenneth Allen, a master sergeant in the Marines, is one who has abandoned hopes of joining the professional ranks. He said he is content to be a Stonewall.
"I'm too old and too small to play pro ball but most of us are tired of being Monday night armchair coaches, so we're out here playing ball. It's the only place I can go out and whack somebody and the most I'll get is a 15-yard penalty," Allen said.
History and tradition are as important to this team as winning, it seems. And a fixture at any Stonewall game is the man who has been the team's announcer for 30 years.
James (Buckwheat) Turner stands at the edge of the field next to an antique Victrola propped up on two track hurdles, ready to play the recorded national anthem that starts the game.
"The girls used to call me Buckwheat when I was young, just like a buckwheat cake, sweet and brown," said Turner, dressed in a green plaid suit, jauntily cocked straw hat and two-tone wingtip shoes. "Now I'm 58 years old and they still call me Buckwheat."
A veteran Army helicopter pilot, Turner paces the sidelines, microphone in hand, filling the spectators in on the finer points of Stonewall football strategy. When he errs in his commentary, catcalls from the enthusiastic and uninhibited crowd let him know it. He is also known for his occasional philosophic interjections.
"Time waits for no man and in just 15 minutes, this game will be recorded in the sands of time," Turner predicted, after the "Wall" rolled up a substantial lead in the third quarter Saturday night. "Time waits for no man."
"Tell him Buckwheat!" a fan yells from the bleachers.
Outside the main gate, vendors sell plates of baked chicken, sweet potatoes and collard greens to hungry fans. "If your wife kicked you out of the house and you didn't have dinner, you can step out to the curb," Turner informs the crowd.
Fans, some dressed in the team colors, watched as the Stonewalls routed the visiting York County Lions from Pennsylvania, 31 to 8.
Although the close of a successful season holds no promise of multifigure playoff bonuses or ticker-tape parades, the players and loyal fans whooping it up in the stands will testify that Stonewall football is serious business.
Elmer Tyler, Richard Perry and Ben Wright, counselors of the Southeast Settlement House, created the team for neighborhood boys in 1946, borrowing its name from another local team that played in Southeast during the 1920s. Team members at first practiced on vacant sandlots, sometimes sleeping on the field to make sure they would be on time for the games.
They paid for the first uniforms with proceeds from community dances; admission 25 cents. But the Stonewalls first season was a losing effort. The next year the team picked up some of the better players from Southeast and went on to an undefeated season, a feat it has repeated several times since.
"These guys are sacrificing a lot; most of them have jobs to go to on Monday morning and it gives them a special thrill to hear their names called, so they go out there and try to show their families and girlfriends they still got it," said Turner.
Fiercely proud of their individual statistics, the players can rattle off the number of unassisted tackles or yards rushing they gained last season. But they also take pride in their teammates, many of whom they have grown up with in Stonewall family.
"Oooweee!" "Way to go!" "Good catch Reggie!" team members hollered when running back Reginald Barnes broke free for a touchdown at the end of another successful Stonewall scoring drive Saturday, no small part of the eventual drubbing of the Lions.
They exchanged resounding high-fives and helmet pounding congratulations as Barnes trotted triumphantly off the field, dropping to the ground for a shot of cold water from the ballboys and perhaps a moment to savor his glory.
"It would hurt me to play for anybody else," said quarterback Anthony Melvin. "The Stonewalls are a family thing and the fans have made us what we are so we make sure we put on a show for them."
"I was born and raised in Southeast so that makes me an automatic Stonewall fan" said Audrey Tinker, whose son and nephew play on the team. "I've been with this team all of my life," another fan said. "I'm a true Stonewall."
After the game, fans crowded against the guardrails to get a closer glimpse of their victorious but weary heroes. And even as the stragglers drifted into the locker room, the cheering went on:
"Stonewall! Stonewall! Stonewall!"