Eric Wade stood on the concrete white concourse behind the football stadium stands. Largo High School's new head football coach spoke calmly about the game his team had just played, yet one could sense the disappointment in his voice.
Wade and his team had spent the previous three weeks concentrating almost solely on football and their season-opening game. It was against Urbana High, the defending Maryland 2A champions, and its standout quarterback, Zack Mills. It was under the stadium lights, on a Friday night, in a town where football is the only game around.
Largo came into the game with several new starters, a new coach and renewed hope after barely missing a playoff berth last season. The coaches had prepared countless hours and the players had endured long practices that included a few tirades.
But in the days leading up to the game, Wade's attention often was diverted by a series of logistical challenges. When game time came, Largo's players looked tentative and unsure of themselves. By the third quarter, their enthusiasm had been replaced by a feeling of helplessness. The players were quiet; many sat on the bench when not in the game.
Final score: Urbana 26, Largo 6.
And as Wade reflected on the day, it all seemed like a blur.
"This whole day, I was talking to myself, saying that we need another week," he said. "I was just trying to get through it. I knew it was going to be tough. But the kids hung in and nobody quit. They're very disappointed that we lost, but that's what you want; you want it to hurt when you lose."
A Thousand Details
Just reaching Friday night was somewhat of an achievement for Wade. In the days leading up to the game, he made sure a bus was chartered, arranged the players' pregame meal and located backup uniforms in case Largo's new pants did not arrive in time. One thing after another, it seemed, crept up on the unsuspecting first-year coach. Then, after arriving in this small town just across the Montgomery-Frederick county line, there was a question whether Largo would be allowed to use the footballs it brought to the game.
"It's almost like you have to choreograph everything," Wade said. " . . . You would have thought I was a madman. Every day [it] seemed like something new came up."
By game time, though, everything seemed ready. The coaches wore khaki shorts and new crew neck shirts with "Largo Lions Football" stitched on the left breast. The players wore the new navy pants that arrived Friday morning. The pants had the word "Lions" stitched in cursive on the upper left thigh, the jerseys were white and the silver helmets bore a logo identical to that of the Detroit Lions.
The team left school at 4 p.m. to beat traffic and ensure the players would have plenty of time to warm up. Wade scheduled his players for an early dismissal, missing eighth period. But while the Lions left class early, they left too late to eat their pregame meal in the school cafeteria. So Wade arranged for the cafeteria to prepare box lunches instead.
For the drinks, Wade brought two of his own coolers to school and borrowed two coolers from his mother to take on the bus.
The team traveled by a chartered bus because Prince George's County school buses are only allowed to travel 60 miles, one way, to events. On Tuesday, Wade learned that it was 62 miles from Largo to Urbana, so he and Largo Athletic Director Jackie Slay arranged for the charter to take themselves, the 46 players and two managers to the game. Because the bus seated only 52 people, the assistant coaches had to drive themselves.
In the locker room before the game, many players fumbled with their equipment, unsure how to adjust all of the straps, trying to get their pads just right. A few fiddled with bandannas. They gathered around Wade for a final pep talk, then said the Lord's Prayer.
"I love you guys and I believe in you guys," Wade told them, his voice stern. "We have worked hard to get to this point. Now we just have to show it on the field."
As the players lined up to file out of the room, a few seniors took turns yelling instructions. Wide receiver-defensive end Yusef Young stood on a bench, his eyes wide, and yelled, "Everybody holds hands! We're a team!" Other players shouted as hard as they could, reminding each other that this game was what they had been working so hard for.
Band Kicks In
It was an unusual matchup. Largo is one of the state's biggest schools; Urbana's enrollment ranks in the lower half of the state's high schools. All of Largo's players are black; all of Urbana's players are white.
When the Urbana band played "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the game, a Largo player said it was the first time he had heard the song performed by a band prior to a game.
"It sounds good to me," said wide receiver Allan Bussey, a junior who did not play because of an injured knee. "They don't do that where we're from."
The stands behind Urbana's bench were packed. Some fans watched from the concourse, others watched from behind a fence surrounding the stadium. The Hawks had won all of their 13 games the previous season and were given a good chance to do the same this season. Mills, a 6-foot-3 left-hander who has verbally committed to play for Penn State, is the team's best player.
Wade said he would have preferred to play a weaker team in his team's first game and get a sure win.
"For all intents and purposes, their program is really bigger than ours," Wade said. "They have three teams. [Freshman, junior varsity and varsity; Largo does not have a freshman team.] They have good receivers, tough linebackers and their fullback is a tough kid. Typically, when you have an open date [for a nonleague game], you want play a team you have a better than 50 percent chance of beating. And that's definitely not the case here.
"We get 1,500 or 2,000 people at a really big game, but they're selling season passes at their scrimmages. It's a whole different atmosphere. It's more of a neighborhood school. From what I understand, the town shuts down Friday night and everyone is at the game. This is how you always hear about how high school football was."
While Urbana looked polished as it went through its pregame warm-ups, Largo was still tinkering, as Wade gave kicker Dionte Wilson a quick lesson on kickoffs.
Then came one more problem. Game officials told Wade his team could not use the footballs it brought to the game because they did not have an official stamp. Wade said he had been told the stamp was not necessary. Following a discussion between the officials and Urbana Coach Dave Carruthers, Largo was allowed to use the footballs.
Wade said he thought being able to use the footballs was important from a psychological standpoint. "You know kids, if any little thing is changed they could be off," he said.
Largo's players came out with bravado, but it seemed forced. The players were unsure what to do; as the game wore on, their shoulders began to slump and the tone of their voices got lower. The offense failed to gain a first down in the second half.
The lone highlight was Curtis Raby's 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, which made the score 10-6 late in the first half. Other than that, Largo struggled on both sides of the ball. By the midpoint of the third quarter, Largo trailed by 20 points and the players were nearly silent. Those standing on the Largo sideline could hear the bugs buzzing in the woods behind the stands. While Urbana's starters left the game to a nice applause, Largo's players walked slowly to the sideline and untucked their jerseys.
Afterward, the Lions trudged toward their charter bus as the stadium lights were turned off.
"We came out here to win," said quarterback Marcus Richardson, who completed 5 of 15 passes for 47 yards with one interception in his first varsity start. "But they're a great team. They are physically well-trained and mentally they didn't make any mistakes."
CAPTION: Road adjustments: After sitting through a 62-mile chartered bus trip and munching on box lunches, Largo players limber up before their season-opening game against Urbana (Md.) High on Friday night.
CAPTION: Weeks of preparation boil down to a couple of hours of prime time: Largo's Vincente Tillman, above left, fastens his shoulder pads with help from Jasper Chamberlain in the locker room; Lamont Henderson, center, searches for running room against Urbana; the Lions' Terrance Pitts, below, takes a seat as Urbana pulls away for a 26-6 victory that left the Lions, who just missed a playoff berth last season, with 0-1 record.
CAPTION: Trailing their teammates, Largo's Marcus Richardson and Tommy Collins make their way to field before kickoff against Urbana.