The Washington-area sniper shootings resulted in three weeks of uncertainty about the future of the high school football season. Now that the season will continue, the fates of public school teams in Prince George's County comes down to a make-or-break stretch of four games in 12 days.
"For a lot of teams, the playoffs don't start after the regular season anymore -- they start right now," Largo senior cornerback Usama Young said. "But at least now we have the chance to make the playoffs, because we get to play. Now everyone knows what they have to do."
The physically demanding string of games began Tuesday. Three days of recovery and preparation will then give way to games at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Three more days follow before another set of games Wednesday. The regular season winds up Nov. 9, with just two days between the third and fourth games.
The only games the county will not make up were those that had been scheduled for the weekend of Oct. 18 and 19.
"I see it [as though] we got a present, because, to me, games are the fun part about playing football," Gwynn Park senior linebacker Wesley Jefferson said. "Practices are the hard part, so is preparing for the games, and that is all we have been doing. We now get to go out there and hit somebody wearing a different-color jersey. I don't care when or where we play. All that matters is we get to play."
For the six teams in the county's 4A league and five others in the county's 3A/2A/1A league that control their own playoff destinies, the grueling schedule to close the regular season is better than the alternative.
"I don't know what I would have done if we didn't get to play. To put all that work in to go 4-1 and be right there to make the playoffs and have it all taken away just wouldn't be fair," Parkdale senior running back Kevin Beverly said. "I just hoped we would get to play again. I don't even want to think about what I'd do without football, and now I won't have to."
This season's condensed schedule is similar to what happened last year following the terrorist attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon. Teams were forced to play three games in eight days last year.
"We did it last year, so we know what to expect," said Bowie senior cornerback Aaron Montgomery, whose team won all three games during that stretch last season. "This is not anything that is totally new. You just have less time to prepare for each game."
County Supervisor of Athletics Earl Hawkins's announcement Friday allowing teams to practice outside -- the first time they were permitted to do so since Oct. 5 -- ended a 20-day period during which outdoor activities had been on indefinite hold.
Following the Oct. 7 shooting of a 13-year-old student at Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, teams were not allowed to practice until Oct. 11. School officials then came up with a plan to play a consolidated schedule of games at three sites on Oct. 14.
But less than 24 hours before the first of those games were supposed to begin, Hawkins cited a concern for the safety of players and fans, and suggested to Superintendent Iris T. Metts that all athletics should be suspended. That ban, which included all practices, was lifted Oct. 17, when Metts allowed indoor sessions to resume as Hawkins searched for alternative venues with greater security.
Although soccer and volleyball games were played at undisclosed locations last week, county school officials did not give football teams the green light to practice outside until Friday. County officials postponed games that were originally scheduled for this past weekend until Tuesday, when games were held at their original campus locations.
"I never gave up hope. I was always optimistic that we would save the season," Hawkins said. "High school is a once-in-lifetime experience, and playing sports is an important part of it. We always wanted the games to continue at some point, but we had to make sure we found a safe way to do it. If there was a risk of having someone get hurt or having to visit a kid's grave site because of the sniper, it was a risk I wasn't willing to take."
A positive side effect of how county officials handled high school athletics during the recent sniper shootings was that plans have been made to play games at undisclosed locations should a similar situation arise in the future.
"We worked with people in the community and other departments who helped us come up with a plan that would let us play games outside at very secure locations if something like this would happen again," Hawkins said. "But, hopefully, we'll never have to use those options."
Area players said the key to a successful remainder of the season would be a team's physical and mental conditioning.
"You get into a routine every week, and now that's changed," Douglass senior right tackle Nigel Dunlap said. "On Mondays, you watch film, and then you take the next few days to prepare for your next opponent. It becomes a regimen you get comfortable with, but now you have to get ready to prepare for a game mentally right after one game ends. I think the teams that adjust the best will be the ones that win."
Bladensburg senior quarterback Alonzo Turner said: "The teams that win all four games will prove they conditioned the hardest all year. It will be like bragging rights about which team's conditioning is the best. It's going to be tough on our bodies, but if we go 4-0 to end the season and get into the playoffs, then it will be worth it."