Twenty-four husky youths, dressed in their finest attire, gathered with family, friends and guests in their decorated school cafeteria last month and dined on fried chicken, sliced ham and roast beef before receiving an array of plaques and trophies for an undefeated football season.
The special banquet was held at Oak Hill, the District's maximum security institution for 168 delinquent youths. The honorees were members of the institution's football team, the Tigers, who finished the season with a 10-0 record.
During their 11-week season, the Tigers, with a 230-pound average weight, took on some of the best and biggest public and parochial high school junior varsity football teams with plays, determination and power that led them to an undefeated season. Only one team, Coolidge, scored against the Tigers.
"They were big guys who hit hard," said Bobby Mitchell, the junior varsity coach at Coolidge, "but they were very organized and very, very disciplined. The bottom line was they were all well coached."
Leslie Cooper, the assistant coach who organized the first Oak Hill football team in 1968 when the institution opened, said, "This team reminds me of the team that Joe Gibbs took to the Super Bowl."
The team was born when "we took one look at the size of the kids that were coming in through that gate and we knew we had to find some constructive way to challenge that energy," he said.
James Baker, the recreational director at Oak Hill, sees the football team as a way for many of his "boys" to "beat this rap" and improve their futures. They are incarcerated on criminal charges that include drug distribution, armed robbery and homicide.
"These kids learn important lessons and skills out there on that field," said Baker. "They learn responsibility, respect, the ability to work as a team . . . and most of all it builds their self-esteem."
Emanuel, a 17-year-old defensive end, said the football training taught him a great deal about both the game and his own potential.
"I never played football before I came to Oak Hill," said Emanuel, whose last name is not used because he is a juvenile. "And I wasn't sure if I had what it takes, but now I realize the great potential that I have."
Emanuel attributes the team's winning season to strict training conditions. "We don't have any girls in here to mess with and we don't have any drugs to get into either," he said. "So we put all our energy into football and we win."
Cooper added, "You give us the meanest and biggest kid out there and I'll guarantee you that we can make a man out of him before the season even begins."
While the Tigers resemble a traditional young ball club, there are some stark differences. All their games are played at Oak Hill in Laurel, about 20 miles from the District. Family, friends and fans attending the games are searched. Team rosters change often because some of the juvenile return home and others sometimes must appear in court rather than on the gridiron.
"It's impossible for us to have a set roster because so many of our boys either are released during the middle of the season or they are obligated to be somewhere else," explained Baker.
He recalled playing one game when both Oak Hill quarterbacks were scheduled to be in court. "Not one, but both our quarterbacks were gone, so our wide receiver played quarterback and we won the game anyway."
Baker explained that last year during an away game, one Oak Hill Tiger took an unauthorized trip home. Now, he said, in order to go off grounds each team member must seek approval from the courts. Baker said that bureaucratic process is too complex to pursue.
The team also must have a set roster of players for the season.
Baker and Cooper said that several Oak Hill players have gone on to play successfully on other high school teams, and a few have earned college football scholarships.
"All of these kids are good college prospects," said Cooper, "but too many get involved with the wrong things once they get on the outside."
Emanuel, who will be released in 30 days, said he is still unsure whether he will play football on the outside.
"It depends on what type of school I go to," he said, "but I least I have the option."
Baker said that options are too often absent from the lives of most of the boys who pass through the 10-foot-high double fences that surround the Oak Hill compound.
"If just one or two of these guys can go on and make good with what they learned through their football training," he said, "then that's one or two more boys that we can say had an option and chose to take it."