Duke Fergerson was not happy as he watched the St. John's/Prospect Hall offense score its third passing touchdown of the first half against his Harlem Hellfighters. But the game, played last Sunday at Georgetown Prep, was about more than just the action on the field. The Hellfighters, a second-year team made up of students from 13 schools in Harlem, traveled all morning via Amtrak and Metro to face a Prospect Hall team that understands what they're going through.
"They're in their second year and we're in our third," said Prospect Hall Coach John Ricca, whose team won the game 42-8. "I know what they're going through. . . . I'll do anything I can to help."
While there are indeed similarities between the teams, putting together the Hellfighters was quite a bit different from launching a football program in Frederick.
It started when Fergerson, a former wide receiver with the Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills, volunteered as an assistant and then head coach for a Harlem, N.Y., youth program. When he found out there hadn't been a public high school team there for more than 60 years, Fergerson decided to help.
"We didn't have much growing up, but we had football," said Fergerson, who grew up in Merced, Calif. "These kids have nothing compared to what we had."
Fergerson pitched the idea to many of Harlem's 13 high schools, but while most agreed organized high school football was needed, many doubted whether they could individually field a team, he said. So a plan was devised: all interested students in Harlem would play for one team, based at Frederick Douglass Academy. Upon gaining approval from an Army general, Fergerson decided to name the team the Harlem Hellfighters after the Army's 369th Infantry Regiment, an all-black World War I unit that fought under the French flag because the U.S. would not allow black soldiers in combat.
"Like us, the 369th Regiment had no place to train," said Fergerson. "But they fought with a level of distinction that was undeniable, and they came back to Harlem heroes."
The next step was getting that team recognized by New York City's Public Schools Athletics League (PSAL). Fergerson met with the city's public schools officials, most of whom were against allowing the team to play other public schools, believing the Hellfighters had an unfair recruiting advantage, he said.
But in mid-September of 2003, city public schools chancellor Joel I. Klein granted the team approval to participate against other public school teams.
However, the Hellfighters still had no equipment nor uniforms, and with high school season underway, no opponents. Fergerson persuaded the NFL to grant the team $10,000 for uniforms, and in November the Hellfighters played their first of four games last season. This year the PSAL invited the Hellfighters to become full members.
The Hellfighters were 6-3 entering last Sunday's game, and though the score against Prospect Hall was one-sided, everyone involved recognized that the game was secondary.
"Here is a former NFL player giving back to the community," said Georgetown Prep assistant coach John Shay, who met Fergerson at an NFL event over the summer. "I thought putting the game together at our field would be a great way to help their team."
And the Hellfighters, for many their first trip out of New York, also learned something.
"More than anything, by coming to a different environment the kids know what football is outside of New York," said Fergerson, who hopes to bring the Hellfighters back to the Washington area next year. "This was a good teaching tool for us."