High school football players eating together before a game is not unusual, whether they are queuing up at an all-you-can-eat buffet or inhaling a meal prepared by team mothers. You break bread, then you break tackles.
For the past three seasons, however, the Brentsville football team has taken this concept a step further. Make that hundreds of steps. Before every home game, and some road contests, the Tigers, clad in their game jerseys, file out of the school at 2:30 p.m., cross Aden Road and stroll the mile or so down Fitzwater Drive to Joe's Pizza & Subs at Fitzwater and Route 28.
There, the 55 or so players and coaches devour spaghetti, salad and bread -- washed down with Gatorade -- then walk the mile back to school to start preparing in earnest for that's night game.
It's an experience like no other among Prince William County football players, especially when the Nokesville Elementary students greet them with cheers as the players file past the school. In addition, one building Friday had a "Tiger Football Catch the Fever" sign stretched across it. Other lawns or porches along the route displayed "Tigers Rule!" and "Tiger Town We Don't Back Down" signs, one complete with a black and orange pompon. One resident thinks that "No. 4, No. 32, No. 8 and No. 36 Rock."
"Like I told our kids, and told the parents before, they're living a Norman Rockwell painting," said Brentsville Coach Dean Reedy, whose school of 1,044 students is the smallest high school in Prince William County. "In Northern Virginia, it's unheard of for kids to be able to leave school and walk through the middle of town and eat and walk back. It's just something that doesn't happen."
You might think the players would grouse about having to walk a mile each way for a meal, with a game to play that evening. Not so. The Tigers relish their ability to do what no other area team does or even has the capacity to do.
"It's a special thing to all of us," said junior running back Erich Kottke, who like most of the Tigers basks in the cheers of the elementary school students, who were out in full force Friday as part of the homecoming festivities. (Reedy's fifth-grade daughter, Sam, burst out of the line of elementary school students and bounded into her father's arms).
"We're like in the NFL and we have our fans there," Kottke said. "Every time we walk there they're waving at us, and some of them know our names. It's really special and it makes us get ready for the game and know what we have to represent when we come out there on the field -- Nokesville, Brentsville and everybody."
"They all scream off the buses and stuff, and scream out our names," junior running back Jay Terrell said. "It's good for the little kids because they look up to us."
Nokesville Elementary Principal Wayne Ralston, noting that the elementary school opened as the original Brentsville District High School in 1929, couldn't agree more.
"It gives us a special time for the kids to see their big brothers and big sisters and some really positive role models," Ralston said. "It really is a neat part of our school."
On Friday, as usual, it was senior quarterback Chooch Oristian and senior defensive back D.J. Mayo leading the line of players through town, past the antiques store and over the railroad tracks and past the dentist office and bank and tire store and library and other businesses.
"It's like Coach Reedy says, it's like we're living in a dream here," Oristian said. "It's like we have the whole town behind us like out of the movie 'Varsity Blues.' We have everyone backing us up, supporting us."
Upon arrival at Joe's, in the Nokesville Square shopping center right next to the "Welcome to Nokesville" sign, the players fill up the back room and spill over into the front of the restaurant. It is off hours -- too late for lunch and too early for dinner -- so the Tigers often have the establishment to themselves. Their residency is well known; a delivery man exiting the restaurant while the players entered offered a "Good luck, guys" as the Tigers parted for him to wheel a dolly back to his truck.
Inside, Joe's assistant manager, Sal Qura, and others were doling out about 10 pounds of pasta. Qura likes to feed the team, but because he's working Friday evenings, he doesn't get to attend the games. But sometimes the players or other students return to Joe's after the game and let him know what happened.
"They can eat," Qura said from the kitchen. "And pasta's good before the game to give them energy."
Many of the players peel off their jerseys before eating so they don't spill sauce on them. Senior punter-linebacker Steven Jankauskas has gained a reputation for being a sloppy eater and, more than once, his teammates say, he has played with a sauce-stained shirt.
Jankauskas claims he does that for a reason.
"I like to get it dirty," he said. "When the other team sees it [stained], it looks like I have some blood on my jersey. So it's an intimidation factor, I think."
Reedy, a long-time Brentsville assistant before taking over as head coach three years ago, wanted to do a team meal but was not sure what to do. The previous coach, Mike Madison, often prepared the food himself.
"I'll tell you right now, you don't want to eat anything I fix," Reedy said.
The Tigers eat at Joe's for $250 per meal, and they provide their own Gatorade and help clean up after themselves so the restaurant is ready for dinner patrons. Reedy has the peace of mind of knowing that all the players are accounted for and have eaten a filling dinner.
"It's awesome," senior receiver-defensive back M.J. McLaughlin said. "Reedy inspires us so much just because he always makes sure we know we're different from all the other schools and still have the country, blue-collar [attributes].
"It's just Nokesville. It's a small little town. Everybody knows the football team and everybody knows Reedy. No other big school could do that. We're one of the only ones that could pull it off."