There are 20 teenage boys in Room 211 of the Wicker Science Hall of the Fork Union Military Academy, and they all have at least one thing in common: None of them wants to be here.
Fort Washington's Bobby Lane, sitting toward the left side of the classroom and diligently working on math problems, is no different. Lane doesn't like the blue military uniform he is required to wear. Doesn't much care for the food. Doesn't like the stringent regulations dictating when he can sleep or watch television or listen to the radio. Doesn't like the fact that there are no girls here.
But the 20 boys in this room have one goal in mind: playing major college football. Unfortunately for them, coming out of high school they did not meet the National Collegiate Athletic Association's minimum standards for receiving a Division I or I-AA athletic scholarship.
In all, about 60 boys play on the postgraduate football team at this military school in Fluvanna County, 30 miles southeast of Charlottesville. With the nearest traffic light 20 miles away, they are trying to raise their college entrance exam scores (either the Scholastic Assessment Test or the American College Testing exam) and/or their grade-point averages and continue to impress college recruiters with their football skills.
"They want their SAT, their core [grade-point average in 13 classes] and the exposure," said John Shuman, in his 20th year coaching the postgraduate football team at the school. "I've got one guy who wants to be here. Everyone else, it is just, 'Get me what I need and get me out.' "
What Lane needs is an improved score on the SAT or ACT. As a senior at Friendly High School last year, he rushed for more than 2,000 yards and scored 29 touchdowns while helping the Patriots go 13-0 and win the Maryland 3A championship.
Off the field, though, Lane's statistics were less spectacular: a high of 780 on the SAT and a 2.2 core grade-point average, according to Friendly assistant coach Marcus Berry. With his grade-point average, Lane needs a 940 on the SAT to qualify for an athletic scholarship.
"The truth is, in high school I probably didn't put forth any effort," Lane said last week during a break from class. "I was lazy. All the coaches said I was lazy in the classroom. I knew the work, I was just too lazy to do it."
Said Berry: "He had a great work ethic in the weight room and on the field, but he needed to get it off the field."
Not being eligible for a college scholarship limited Lane's options. He could go to a college that would accept him and not play football for a season, he could go to junior college or he could go to a prep school, raise his academic statistics and go to college next year.
So here he is, in his dress-blue military uniform, black shoes polished, taking orders from higher-ranking classmates and studying several hours a day in preparation for the SAT, which was given this past Saturday. He takes one five-hour class each day; last week it was SAT math, this week and next it will be workshops for the ACT, which is given Oct. 23. Then it will be SAT English until the next SAT test date. The idea is simple: stress one skill, drill it into the students' heads and move on to the next skill.
"We have looked at every math problem inside and out on the exam, the structure of the exam, different strategies to get points and what to stay away from," said Shuman, who teaches the SAT math class.
After class is over at 2 p.m., Lane joins his classmates for about 45 minutes of military drill exercises led by tactical officer Wesley Huff, an army reservist responsible for training the school's Alpha Company and supervising the students in their dorm. Among the rules that must be followed are keeping a room in order, no talking after lights out at 10 p.m., no possession of compact discs that have parental advisory warning stickers and lining up books on the right side of a desk--smallest to tallest from left to right. Lane avoids that one by storing his books in his desk.
In addition to keeping their rooms spotless (Lane shares a room with senior Toby Williamson, a cross-country runner, and post-graduate Quentin Jackson, a 300-pound lineman who has given an oral commitment to play for Michigan State), the students are responsible for cleaning bathrooms and hallways. They start waxing and buffing the hallways before class begins at 8 a.m.
"Stuff mostly everybody here wouldn't be doing at home," Lane said. "That's the truth. If I was at home, I wouldn't clean bathrooms."
Being away from home has one other disadvantage for Lane: He can't see his girlfriend of two years, Janaya Nixon. He calls her just about every chance he gets, which isn't often. He tries to sneak in a quick call from a pay phone outside the dorm before practice and then once before dinner. Lane often peeks into his mailbox to check for mail. He says Nixon promised to write him every day and that he writes her every other day.
Adjusting to the military regimen and intensive work in the classroom has been difficult at times for Lane. When he missed drill exercise while visiting with his parents, he had to march for about two hours as punishment.
"After that, I wouldn't want to get in trouble anymore," he said.
With Lane struggling with the regimen early on, Huff called him into his office, on the second floor of the company barracks. Huff, in his classic drill sergeant voice, asked a simple question: "Do you really want to be here?"
"No, sir," Lane replied. Later, he explained, "They tell you to always tell the truth."
Adjusting on the football field has not been simple, either. No longer is he the star tailback--or a tailback at all.
The starting tailback is Art Thomas, a University of Virginia recruit, and since Fork Union has several other talented tailbacks, Shuman moved Lane to fullback. There, he gets fewer carries against a schedule that includes games against college junior varsity teams, other postgraduate teams and junior college teams. Friday's game is at Montgomery College-Rockville.
At the end of the season, if all goes as planned, college recruiters will want him because of his ability, and they'll be able to take him once he's improved his academics. Lane said that of the schools that have contacted him, Maryland and Auburn are his top two choices.
"I just want to go to a Division I school that everybody knows about," he said.
On the calendar in his room, Lane crosses off each passing day and has a big circle on this Saturday, when cadets are allowed to leave campus for the weekend. On his only previous trip home, Lane went back to Friendly to deliver former teammates, particularly his cousin, B.J. Lane, a message.
"When I went up to school, I told the guys to get their stuff done while they are in school," Lane said. "I want [B.J.] to do the things I didn't do. I want him to pay attention and just put forth an effort."
CAPTION: Ex-Friendly running back Bobby Lane hopes Fork Union Military Academy's rigorous academic schedule will help him qualify for a Division I scholarship.
CAPTION: A year after gaining over 2,000 yards and scoring 29 touchdowns for 3A state champion Friendly, Lane is concentrating on the basics. Hours in the classroom, military drill exercises and football take up most of his time.
CAPTION: Bobby Lane, above, eats before rushing off to evening formation. He's struggled at times with his new routine--as well as moving from tailback to fullback--but his goal is clear: "I just want to go to a Division I school that everybody knows about," he says.